Brian O'Driscoll backs Ireland to beat England – if they can contain Vunipola
Former Ireland captain believes England’s strength is overstated as they arrive in Dublin
Ireland’s Conor Murray in action at the Six Nations Championship Round 5 match against England at Twickenham in March 2018. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Brian O’Driscoll believes Ireland will beat England at the Aviva Stadium this Saturday as a starting point to a 2019 Guinness Six Nations which, he forecasts, will climax with a title showdown in Cardiff.
England arrive on the back of winning three from four in November, against South Africa (12-11), Japan (35-15) and Australia (37-18), while losing 16-15 to the All Blacks, but O’Driscoll believes the merits of that form have been overstated.
“England had three wins but they should have ultimately lost to South Africa with a dubious decision at the end,” said O’Driscoll, in reference to the unpunished high hit in the last play by Owen Farrell on André Esterhuizen.
“They were shaky in parts against New Zealand in horrible conditions, not great against Japan and pretty effective against a poor Australia. So I don’t know if the feelgood factor of three from four wins is reflective in those performances.”
O’Driscoll does accept that England are “a different proposition” with Billy Vunipola.
“He has really turned himself into a complete player because of his skillset. His ability to play-make and carry makes defences sit down and spread out at different times. When he makes the right decisions, it is very hard to defend, because you basically need two men to defend him. It’s very difficult to take him down one on one. So as soon as he sucks in two defenders, he releases the ball.
“If you kick loosely, he likes to get in the back-field quite a lot. It’s also those hard yards which James Ryan does a great job for Ireland, stealing those extra few metres in the close quarters. He does that brilliantly and still gets his offload away. Billy is still one of the best number eights in the world, if not the best. There will be a lot of focus on him this week. If Ireland can contain him, and he has a quiet game, that goes a long way to stopping their go-forward.
If I was sitting in the Irish camp, I wouldn’t be over-confident, but I’d be thinking, ‘we’re better than this lot’
“It will come down to the small moments of trying to boss Billy Vunipola, stopping their go-forward, preventing Maro Itoje having a huge game and just making sure they don’t make the advantage line with whatever centre pairing they select, if Manu Tuilagi gets the start. I think there are just too many smarts in the Irish team at the moment and they will have too much for England.”
O’Driscoll’s TV sidekick, Lawrence Dallaglio, believes that England are “probably as fully loaded now as they have been in some time. It puts Eddie [Jones] in a much better position than he was in the autumn, when to win three out of four given the squad they had was acceptable really.”
That said, the former England captain concedes: “Ireland are slight favourites; that’s me telling it the way it is. They’ve won three out of four, 14 out of 16 against English clubs, which is a phenomenal record. If I was sitting in the Irish camp, I wouldn’t be over-confident, but I’d be thinking, ‘we’re better than this lot.’
“England have it all to do, when you start to lose regularly to the same opponent it starts to really eat at you, and I’d like to think it’s becoming a bit too regular for Ireland and a bit too uncomfortable for England, and that will create a reaction in the [English] group. We’ll find out, eh?”
Time was when having England and France in Dublin was considered Ireland’s preferable biennial schedule, but O’Driscoll is not alone in wondering if this still applies.
“I’d have France down at joint fourth with Scotland. It’s quite compressed but Ireland are still favourites. They won’t be shocked in Scotland again, although it will be tough. I see a showdown in Cardiff for the title.”
Invariably, this Six Nations will viewed in the context of a World Cup year, and England’s 2003 World Cup success is a northern hemisphere template, given it was preceded by a 46-6 win in a Lansdowne Road Grand Slam shoot-out against Ireland.
Dallaglio admits this gave England an advantage in negotiating some tricky form in the World Cup, but points out that Ireland have already won the Slam – albeit he warns that, as “one of the best sides in the world”, Ireland will discover that “everyone plays their best game against you. Everyone is 10-15 per cent better than would be in any other game because they’re terrified of losing.”
But looking ahead to Ireland’s nine games between now and Japan, Dallaglio maintains: “You wouldn’t want to be losing more than one of those, that’s for sure, if you really think you’re good enough to win the World Cup.”
The perfect world is a good Six Nations, a nice holiday and then a massive push for the World Cup
O’Driscoll concurs, although he also notes, from bitter experience, that Ireland’s form and high hopes in the build-up to the 2007 World Cup weren’t vindicated.
“It wasn’t the case in ’07. We were great in ’07 but fell apart at the World Cup. There’s still lots to get right but you don’t want to be fighting for form in the warm-up games or the pool games, looking for confidence.
“The perfect world is a good Six Nations, a nice holiday and then a massive push for the World Cup. Few teams come out of leftfield – maybe France in 2011, but they are an anomaly. More often than not, there needs to be good form. There tends to have been success in advance of that.”
Brian O’Driscoll and Lawrence Dallaglio were launching the “Guinness global responsible drinking campaign to encourage moderation amongst the millions of adult fans that will be watching and enjoying the 2019 Guinness Six Nations”