Ireland must adopt a more expansive game plan if they are to prevail
England’s set-piece must be targeted and a high-tempo running game employed
What makes Stuart Lancaster such an influential English coach is that his game plans maximises his team’s talents and minimises their weaknesses.
England are excellent at winning possession, but not very good at using it. Lancaster has England playing a very limited attacking game, based on giant forwards, running close, off their halves and simple lateral passing to their centres.
Lancaster has one distinct advantage. He has a three-quarter line that can attack. In particular Jonathan Joseph has impressed me with his change of pace, attacking intent and excellent footwork.
My sources at Bath Rugby tell me that when Joseph turned up for pre-season training last June, he had a new attitude. His work ethic became first class. As always, the best workers in the gym and at practice are the best players.
To defeat the English militaristic style of thinking on rugby, you must attack their supply chain of possession at its source. The England set-piece has to be attacked.
In recent times Ireland have suffered a string of losses to England. Before that time, Ireland dominated the fixture. The Irish domination was based on two very simple principles. Disrupt English possession at its source and play a ball-in-hand running game, at such a high tempo, so the English defence cannot cope.
Now here is Ireland’s problem. So far in this Six Nations Championship, Ireland’s running game has been very poor. The Irish ball carriers have had no footwork before contact and simply collide with defenders.
They have not been playing a high-tempo ball-in-hand game for so long that to play fast attacking rugby this week, under the greatest of pressure, will be extremely difficult.
What will make it even harder for Ireland this week is that there is no Jamie Heaslip to carry the ball and England will slow down the Irish ruck possession to such a slow pace that the Greek economy will seem to grow faster.
For Ireland Johnny Sexton is the dominant personality on the field. His and Conor Murray’s superior kicking games provide the Irish “go forward”.
There is a philosophy in coaching that when you play against a great player, like Sexton, you have to battle his “aura in the arena” not just his play. Like the the ancient talisman, Sexton’s presence gives Ireland belief.
England will attempt to diminish both Sexton’s and Murray’s influence on the game by attacking Ireland with destructive tactics at the breakdown. They will then simply apply fast line speed close to the ruck to take away time and space from the Irish halves.
England are very astute at analysing opposition teams. I doubt Ireland’s “walk-away” tactics at the lineout will catch the men in white with their shorts down.
As for the scrum, it will be like every other game, a bun fight, with the referee mentally flipping a coin and awarding penalties about which he has only an uneducated hunch.
England are also trying to attack from scrums. Against Italy, Joseph scored a well-worked try from the scrum set-piece, which is more than I can say for Ireland.
Ireland are on a fantastic winning sequence yet they are playing boring rugby. If winning is the only game in town then Ireland are on the money.
Don’t get me wrong. Joe Schmidt and his staff are to be congratulated. They have played tactics that win. They are making a simple statement: “Style does not matter, results matter.”
However, the tactics required to defeat England call for a change in style. I doubt the same tactics that were used against South Africa, Australia and France will defeat England.
If your match plan against England is to dominate set-pieces and go forward with a kicking game, England will win because they are the masters of such unimaginative rugby.
Ireland’s play is also not inspiring the fans. The Aviva has not been a cauldron of passion. If the Aviva is a passive place it will suit England. Ireland’s play is simply not rocking the Aviva. Maybe we can all cheer scrum penalties. Won’t that be fun!
While there will be the usual nationalistic breast-beating, when the “old enemy” comes to town, I have seen nothing in the recent form of either side to say we are in for a spectacle to warm our hearts on Sunday. I hope I am wrong. So far in this Six Nations I haven’t been.
Certainly the winner will have one hand on the trophy for one of the poorest Six Nations I can remember.
If Ireland can rediscover some Celtic passion and attacking culture to disrupt England’s set-play, they can win. If they rely on the collective boots of Murray and Sexton for their go forward, then Sweet Chariot may very well be “swinging low” in Dublin town on Sunday evening.
Perish the thought