Gordon D’Arcy: Ireland must get England’s Ford to reverse into Twickenham traffic

George Ford and Owen Farrell must be turned and met by bloody-minded tackling

On the back of a disastrous World Cup, can new coach Eddie Jones lead England to a first Six Nations title since 2011? John O'Sullivan reports. Video: David Dunne

 

Winning in Twickenham comes down to rugby’s essential non-negotiable: a player either makes or creates space. Go over defenders or ghost past them.

Win the collision or avoid it.

England’s 10-12 axis of George Ford and Owen Farrell will not win too many collisions so they are tasked with creating space. I don’t believe that combination can win England the World Cup in Japan.

In 2015 Ford and Farrell only combined together when Australia had all but knocked them out of their own tournament. To persevere with them all the way to 2019 would, in my mind, be unwise.

This is an area Ireland must target – a moot point if parity is not gained against England’s scrum and all-round power surge, but it’s a chink in the armour nonetheless.

The missing piece in the English midfield jigsaw could well be the injured Henry Slade. Either at 12 or 10, Slade instinctively knows how to avoid contact in a hectic test match environment.

His great footwork really impressed me in last year’s World Cup warm-up game against France. All English eyes that day, certainly their coaches’, were on Sam Burgess – so much so that they seemed to miss the best player on the pitch.

Eddie Jones is really pushing Ford as his outhalf but that second season syndrome, which has hindered us all, appears to be affecting his form. Nor am I convinced by Farrell at 12. Jones has kept us all guessing this week by stating Elliot Daly and Luther Burrell have also trained at inside centre. Manu Tuilagi is still returning for Leicester.

Lots of decent young players there. None of whom can be called world class. Not since Will Greenwood, really a 13 by trade, have England produced a player who can expertly fill the roll.

That Greenwood could forcefully carry over the gainline, or pick the running lines to do so, made him the perfect foil to Jonny Wilkinson.

I think Slade can be that man further down the line but for now it’s a weakness Ireland must exploit.

Ireland will eventually face a similar conundrum. Robbie Henshaw is the best 12 in Ireland but he can become a brilliant 13. Is he the guy Ireland should shoehorn into a position or the main man we should build a team around in the position where his true value is most evident?

I understand needs must in 2016, but down the line outside centre offers him the chance to have a more positive involvement for Ireland.

Tuilagi is a battering ram, whereas Henshaw and Farrell are not, and while you can switch positions – even Brian O’Driscoll did so a few times and looked good, yet never brilliant, running in the 12 channel – it’s arguably harder to stand out at inside centre. Matt Giteau, Ma’a Nonu (it took him years), Jamie Roberts and Sonny Bill Williams are the obvious exceptions. Besides Giteau – who is a phenomenon – what they all have in common is immense power. And when a Giteau shines at 12 usually the donkey work must be done by an Adam Ashley-Cooper at 13.

Robbie has been outstanding for ireland as a 12 but is that best he has to offer? Maybe he can influence the game more as a 13.

Second Captains

O’Driscoll

I broke into the Ireland team as an outside centre in 2004. When Brian returned later in that Six Nations campaign we swapped back and forth but by 2005 our positions had been clearly defined; I was the 12, he was the 13. End of story. It proved the correct decision. Some players are more cut out to perform better in the congested environment of inside centre. I ended up becoming a better 12 than 13 because of my footwork in traffic. Delivering quick ball to your pacy three-quarters a phase later is usually the difference between a 12 making that solitary yard over the gainline.

I’m not comparing my situation to Robbie’s, more highlighting the point that while it’s vital to get your best players on the field, Robbie is potentially the guy we are going to build a backline around – at Ireland and now Leinster – for the next 10 years.

If Jared Payne, who has a good few miles yet to run, recovers from his hamstring injury this will be a decision for another day. Payne anywhere near fit must start.

Garry Ringrose must also eventually come into this conversation.

That would beg the question, which also occurred after Ireland’s 2004 Six Nations campaign: who is more important? Who must be moved for the team to find the most effective balance?

One centre must always create space for the other to exploit. Even the All Blacks get that with Nonu moving to the outside when Sonny Bill arrived after half-time in the World Cup final. Conrad Smith was sacrificed as the centres instantly created and finished the tournament-defining try.

Payne’s loss would be important in the sense that Ireland really can’t afford to suffer any more injuries, even if Stuart McCloskey is apparently addressing any defensive flaws that would alleviate fears about pairing him with Henshaw.

Let’s assume that Saturday at Twickenham will be a tight game. An Eddie Jones team has always gone with two distributors. Two playmakers on the field seems vital nowadays, but a second distributor robs from the ball-carrying stocks. And yardage over the gainline, or denying such, will matter more than everything except place-kicking this weekend.

Ireland, ideally with England fielding Farrell at 12, but regardless, must put that 10-12 channel in a vice and squeeze until it yields errors that are converted into points by Jonny Sexton.

That means targeting, suffocating, call it whatever you like, but just get to George Ford (exploit his brittle defence). It also means making Farrell carry and punish him when he does.

If this pair are looking fragile, the game is going Ireland’s way.

Ford and/or Farrell will seek to get ball to the wider channel but whoever the distributor is, the Irish defence must force him to turn back inside. And then he must be met by havoc, by bloody-minded tackling. That’s how we have always won at Twickenham – seemingly playing like men possessed yet retaining enough sanity to execute the scoring chances that come our way.

I saw it on television in 1994. I was there in 2004 and again in 2006 when the call at the end was to come wide to myself and Geordan Murphy, and we would attack from deep inside our 22. Instead Rog cleverly attacked the short side, chipping the flat-up English defence who presumed we would be mad to kick away our last possession of the game when we needed to score a try from 80 metres out. Not madness, bravery.

Geordie and I ended up becoming the greatest ever Irish decoy runners to grace the Twickenham sod.

Shane Horgan’s try will live forever but that was a day when we walked into the home of English rugby as very confident men nearing the peak of our collective powers.

Confidence

Saturday is an entirely different scenario. Confidence is as contagious as a lack thereof. It can be generated, or in England’s case dissolved, by piling pressure on perceived weak points. Above all, parity must be gained up front. But if Farrell and Ford are forced to turn inside to distribute – due to there being no space out wide and no time to kick – then England will be faced by an unfamiliar situation. No front-foot ball.

Now, they will bust the Irish defence at some stage. Their pack generates too much power not to. So it will be about surviving for long stretches, winning in Twickenham is always about that.

But make their midfield carry up the guts more than they want to and then welcome the unavoidable physicality of playing in Twickenham.

When England come around the corner or up the middle they must be hit back over the gainline (Ultane Dillane has shown impressive timing in terms of the physicality he brings to the tackle. Not unlike Courtney Lawes. I’m looking forward to seeing him capped off the bench as Ireland need that impact, along with Cian Healy and Rhys Ruddock, to halt English momentum in those bruising last 15 minutes when I fully believe the game will be on the line).

I think Jones has definitely identified how he wants England to play.

He has a specific coaching style that works. We saw it with Japan, Australia, The ACT Brumbies, South Africa and Saracens. There are a couple of power plays but more than any other trait an Eddie Jones team plays high tempo rugby from front-foot ball generated by huge men (James Haskell, Billy Vunipola, Dylan Hartley, George Kruis). It is not a stretch for English players to embrace this approach, as it is how their predecessors usually won.

Ireland must ruin that plan. Or have enough scores on the board to hang on.

Jones is trying to achieve something we have not seen, with any consistency, since Clive Woodward’s England; the marrying of electric-paced backs and a huge pack into an unstoppable force.

Another trait not see since Woodward’s time is players seem almost scared into sticking to the game plan. Otherwise Jones will drop them.

He said as much. He is not handicapped by club loyalty or by being English and the baggage of the past. He is top of the pyramid, like Joe Schmidt, but he has come out saying some clever things, such as his players are not world class, not yet anyway.

This might be the time to catch them. That and the building Grand Slam pressure. Hopefully, this contributes to improved Irish execution, to the passes sticking, the kicks not going out on the full.

Dan Carter’s chip for a Joe Rokocoko try last weekend showed that Carter always seems to exist in a calm state of mind, a place where Ireland players must discover to ensure peak performance on Saturday.

A plain Farrell and Ford must not be allowed to reach.

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