Gordon D’Arcy: Even if Ireland are excellent, a win at Twickenham will be tough

A fast start and scoring early is our best chance of beating England

It was quite a while into my professional rugby career before I managed to tick the box marked Twickenham; six years to be precise, which is quite a lead-in time for someone who made an Ireland senior debut 14 months after completing my Leaving Certificate.

In the week in which Ireland travel to London bidding to maintain the integrity of their pursuit of France in the 2022 Six Nations Championship with a third victory from four matches, I started to think about my experiences at the home of English rugby. The shorthand version would be that even in victory, no Irish triumph was easily achieved.

In my first game at Twickenham in 2004, we toppled the reigning world champions, a title they had won a year previously in Australia. It felt like a comprehensive win but both the score-line – 19-13 – and a close scrutiny of how the game unfolded proved otherwise. We got the breaks and a large dollop of good fortune to boot.

The preamble to Girvan Dempsey’s try was underpinned by what might be termed a series of speculative offloads by Shane Horgan, Malcolm O’Kelly and Anthony Foley, a trifecta of decisions that had a happy outcome. On another day you’d be lucky to get one to stick.

There were other moments in the game where fate favoured those in green jerseys; England wing Ben Cohen's double movement and the fact that a dead ball line denied Will Greenwood and Josh Lewsey tries.

In my experience, we never feared playing England in their backyard but despite being mentally attuned for the most part, Ireland wins at Twickenham were far from commonplace. In Five/Six Nations games during the professional era (since 1996), Irish teams have won just four (31 per cent) of 13 matches.

I was fortunate enough to play in three of these and can vouch for the fact that it took everything we had to close out those victories. In several games that we lost, England weren’t the best version of themselves at the time, yet still found a way to beat us. A country with England’s playing resources at its disposal is expected to win the majority of matches even when below their best.

That assertion is applicable to England at the moment. Head coach Eddie Jones, the perennial magpie, is always looking for the next shiny thing in terms of personnel or tactics. His selection policy has been what might be considered uncharacteristically chaotic since the disappointment of the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

Tactics

There is an air of mimicking what France did 18 to 24 months ago in prioritising picking players with a designated age profile; the main criteria now that they are young, yet these are many of the same players whom he ignored last season when some were arguably in better form.

Jones has also maintained a steadfast loyalty to certain players, which is at odds with the overriding policy. It seems a little confused from the outside. The presence of Marcus Smith at outhalf suggests that the Australian initially bowed to public pressure rather than a preference to play a certain type of game that suits Smith; currently they rely very heavily on kicking, which feels like planning around Owen Farrell.

There are gaps in the playbook for all to see and that disjointedness in selection and tactics is rendering England less effective than they could be. We know all too well in Ireland how long it takes to unlearn one approach and embrace the next vision; roughly 22 games in our case. England don’t have that latitude in the short or medium terms.

Alex Dombrandt, who is doubtful for the Ireland game after contracting Covid-19, is a classic example of Jones hitching his wagon to a player that he previously stubbornly ignored. The Harlequins number eight is a superb player but his growth in international rugby is compromised by ever-changing faces around him. Young players need security and solidity not a merry-go-round of faces.

Jones jettisoned the old guard that served him honourably but they have crept back into the squad primarily because of injuries but also perhaps belated recognition from England’s head coach that he might have been a little premature in dispensing with their services.

If England lose to Ireland at the weekend then they are likely to finish fifth in the Six Nations given that they have to travel to Paris in their final game against what will probably be a Grand Slam-chasing French team.

Jones can point to the fact that his squad is going through a regeneration process with an eye on the 2023 Rugby World Cup, but that has to be accompanied by a modicum of success in the current tournament. Results can’t be completely divorced from progress.

If he is looking to the French model for inspiration, then Jones will have noted that France improved from fourth in the 2018-2019 Six Nations to second in last season’s tournament while freshening up the playing roster. Winning doesn’t have to be the collateral damage for change.

England finished fifth in last season’s tournament and if that’s the final resting place of this season’s ambitions, then the postmortem will be pretty pointed. I have no doubt though that Jones’s Teflon qualities and ability to dictate the narrative will see him emerge unscathed. He’s got enough credit in the bank.

Saturday’s game represents an opportunity for Ireland to reach another milestone in the evolution of the team. It doesn’t camouflage the magnitude of the task. England have all the components of winning, power, speed and football ability; it’s whether they get in their own way through selection or tactics that will have a significant bearing on the outcome.

Ireland head coach Andy Farrell has largely picked teams for the here and now of the Six Nations, as I touched on last week, by starting Andrew Porter and Tadhg Furlong. Hindsight is an exact science and we are paying a price for this approach; the full tariff of Porter's absence will first be revealed on Saturday evening in London. You would expect Cian Healy and Dave Kilcoyne not to take a backward step.

What previously would have been considered, even allowing for parochialism, as the best frontrow in world rugby is now looking a little patched together and one the English pack will look to exploit. The question is will they be able to? Aside from Kyle Sinckler and Ellis Genge, there are not too many caps floating around that frontrow.

Without digressing too much, how much fun would it have been to see a fully loaded Irish frontrow running amuck in Twickenham? Ireland’s selection has been consistent and has put us in a position to add to those four victories in Twickenham. We are making no excuses and are playing to win the next two matches.

Big-game influence

The Italy game has done little to press anyone’s case for selection ahead of the incumbents. There has always been a curiosity in Irish rugby in that it can sometimes be harder to get out of the team than into it.

The team for England will bear a familiar look, one closer to the one that took the field in Paris with a couple of alterations. Farrell and his fellow coaches do not have that many decisions to make as the team largely picks itself. The only question is where do you play Tadhg Beirne?

We know that Joey Carbery, while in desperate need of game time at this level, will lose out to Johnny Sexton’s unparalleled big-game influence. The Italian game didn’t help Robbie Henshaw’s case and so Bundee Aki will rejoin Garry Ringrose in the centre.

Robert Baloucoune can stand in front of the mirror, look himself squarely in the eye and know he has done everything he possibly can to be selected at this level. The one thing he cannot do is influence how well his competition has gone.

James Lowe’s money in the bank from the autumn still has him in credit and Farrell seems likely to give Mack Hansen the nod over Andrew Conway. When form isn’t a decisive arbiter then selection tends to come down to the gut instinct of the coach.

England will try to disrupt the Irish set piece akin to what France did in Paris. While they are not scoring a lot of tries, Marcus Smith is a quality place-kicker and he will punish Ireland if they are loose with their discipline.

England’s ability to attack opposition rucks with Maro Itoje to the forefront is something that Ireland are going to have to be wary of especially as they are unlikely to tire in the same way the French did. Ireland will want to attack at every opportunity and to do so require quick ruck ball and the requisite set piece platform.

It makes for an incredibly appealing encounter but one that is full of trap doors. There is a scrappy element to England and while there isn’t a feeling they are going to suddenly turn on the style, will they do enough? There is no resilience in this squad yet, as they haven’t played together enough to find it.

A fast start by Ireland, complete with points on the scoreboard will test the mentality of individual England players, something that Sexton would be keen to explore. The flip side of the coin is that resilience in a team has to start somewhere, a hard-fought win or performance that can be built on later. Ireland can’t allow that to happen.

England are big, they win penalties and sometimes that can be just enough; they don’t have to be good. Ireland need to be excellent and if they are, it will still be close. It’s always been that way.