England prepare to ‘get in first’ as they meet their Dublin challenge
Almost eight years have passed since the last England Six Nations try in Dublin
England defence coach John Mitchell. “Ultimately it will come down to a small piece of possession; when you’re not focused that can hurt you in a contest like this.” Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images
It requires little imagination to guess what England can expect in Dublin this Saturday. The Aviva Stadium will be chilly and raucous, the Irish pack will be fired up, and the contest both on the floor and in the air will be ferocious. Any similarities with the quiet, sunny and mellow Algarve where England are preparing are not immediately obvious.
Of course, there are benefits to be had from training in warmer temperatures – it was a pleasant 18C in the Algarve on Monday – but England’s modern history is littered with examples of being caught cold by highly motivated Celts away from Twickenham. Almost eight years have now passed since the last England Six Nations try in Dublin, a consolation effort from hooker Steve Thompson in a 25-8 defeat during the Martin Johnson era.
England have won just once in Dublin since Johnson led England to their Grand Slam clinching victory there in 2003. Since the Five Nations became Six in 2000, every team trailing at half-time in this fixture on Irish soil has subsequently gone on to lose the match, a statistic clearly exercising the minds of England’s management. “This is going to be a brutal Test match, and you’ve got to get in first,” said John Mitchell, a former All Black head coach now in charge of England’s pack.
“I’ve always said to friends that it is a very emotive tournament. We are representing a nation that is not well liked by other countries, so that adds its own little spice. We have got to walk towards that challenge and embrace it.”
Mitchell knows more than a little about this particular subject, having also coached Ireland’s forwards back in the distant days of Murray Kidd’s stewardship.
These days the Irish pack is as tough as anyone’s, not least at the breakdown where England have suffered in the past. While highly respectful of the opposition’s capacity for hard work – “they come again and again and again” – Mitchell has also suggested the home team “will look to bore the sh–t out of us” tactically. “Ultimately it will come down to a small piece of possession; when you’re not focused that can hurt you in a contest like this.”
The visitors, consequently, will have to be tooled up physically and mentally braced. Walking towards the challenge might not be enough; England’s back row will need rather more in the way of forward momentum.
“We’ve got to come out of the blocks quick,” said Northampton’s Courtney Lawes, aware of the noise that will wash over England should they start sluggishly and allow Ireland to take an early lead.
“Especially in such a stadium with such passionate fans, you definitely need to come out firing and set the tone for the game. They’re a great team on very good form, so it’s a big challenge for us, but I’m 100 per cent sure we’re ready for it.”
With England not due to confirm their XV until Thursday, it remains to be seen what role Lawes will end up playing. With Brad Shields not having played lately because of a side strain and Jack Clifford having returned home after sustaining a bang to the head during training, it would be little surprise to see a starting back row of Tom Curry at openside, Billy Vunipola at number eight, and Newcastle’s Mark Wilson, one of the success stories of the autumn Tests, on the blindside flank.
If so Wilson would be required to get the better of the Munster captain Peter O’Mahony among others, having never previously sampled a top-level contest in Ireland. With Curry still only 20 and Billy Vunipola still working his way back to full throttle, much could rest on Wilson’s willing shoulders.
“I’ve played a pre-season game in Dublin, but I don’t pay too much attention to where I am playing,” the Falcons forward said. “As soon as you start to take in the occasion and the environment, that’s when people start to lose focus. I imagine it’s a great place to play and people will bang on about the atmosphere, but I’ll be very much focused on what goes on on the pitch.”
Should Lawes be involved Ireland will also encounter an opponent feeling stronger again now that his previously sore back has healed.
“I couldn’t do weights for six weeks because of my back and it wasn’t good – I’d got pretty thin. I’ve put on just over a stone since the autumn, but I’m around the right weight now. I don’t really count calories, I just shovel food down my throat.”
Such are the realties of modern professional rugby where getting smaller is not a wise career move.
Ireland winger Keith Earls is expecting another heavy-duty contest, but does not anticipate England bringing anything beyond what is now commonplace at Test level.
“Every game we play in is brutal and physical, because it’s 15 men trying to kill another 15 men within the rules of the game. I wouldn’t get too bogged down in it. They are expected to be brutally physical against the Scots, the Italians and the Welsh as well.”