Ireland need more than pride and patriotism to deny England
Visitors have shown clinical streak that should help secure second consecutive Grand Slam
Johnny Sexton is all smiles as Ireland pose for a team photograph at the Aviva Stadium on Thursday. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images
Some way into the movie Jaws, the crew of the Orca are finally given their first sighting of the shark they have been hunting as it emerges from the water to bare its teeth and, indeed, its jaws.
After a due pause, no doubt to also allow the shocked cinema-goers time to calm down, a stunned Roy Scheider walks backwards to stand beside Robert Shaw and, cigarette still in the corner of his mouth, says: “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”
Well, it seems a bit like that for Ireland now. England have finally loomed into view and seem bigger than ever. In their sights are back-to-back Grand Slams and a world record for a tier-one nation of 19 successive wins.
What’s more, they’ve just begun to bare their teeth as well. No sooner had Ireland faltered in Wales than England produced the performance of the championship in dissecting Scotland 61-21. Their potent use of two playmakers, George Ford and Owen Farrell, and four strike runners produced an array of strike moves which shredded an under-manned ball-watching defence. England’s crisp passing and lines of running were beyond anything they, or any other team, had produced thus far.
With Jamie Joseph having re-discovered his mojo, and Anthony Watson restored, first to the bench and now to the right wing, if anything they look even more potent. They have a big pack, with a good lineout and strong maul, and the return of Billy Vunipola only adds to their go-forward, ball-carrying game.
By contrast, as England become stronger, Ireland are losing bodies as well as momentum. While Jared Payne’s return adds some welcome alternative playmaking to the Irish mix, the only games under his belt are Zebre and Treviso. But then they lose Conor Murray.
It’s hard to envisage how Ireland are going to hurt England without rediscovering the accuracy as well as the ambition shown in, say, Soldier Field. Certainly it’s hard to see them wearing England down over multiple phases. Wales tried their damndest but couldn’t. And besides, even when thinking back to Chicago, you remember how Murray was the outstanding performer in an outstanding team performance.
Unbeaten at home
At full strength and full tilt, you’d give Ireland a chance. It’s the Six Nations. Ireland have not become a bad side. They are unbeaten at home in the Championship over three seasons. But, whatever about England and to some extent France, Ireland and their fellow Celts can ill-afford to lose any of their main men. Unless Kieran Marmion has the game of his life, the loss of Murray – and with it his leadership, kicking game and presence – looks like a game-changer.
True, England struggled to eventually subdue Wales, but can Ireland bring that same physicality Welsh teams do? More likely, Ireland will have to clinically go after George Ford, England’s smallest man in a team of giants, and generate very quick ball; thereby testing them in a way they haven’t yet been.
The forecast is for a soggy Saturday, although come the 5pm kick-off, it could be dry if cloudy and breezy, and in many ways this tournament finale is set-up for a major occasion and titanic struggle, if not necessarily what would now be considered an upset home win.
As already outlined, England have all the tangible motivation in the world, Ireland less so, but then Wales showed how wounded pride, all the more so in front of one’s own fans, can be a powerful spur.
There’s also a huge amount at stake for Ireland. They can finish anywhere from second to fifth, and defeat, coupled with a Welsh win in Paris, runs the risk of finishing both fifth in the table and slipping to fifth in the world rankings prior to the pool draw in May.
Restoring some pride in that green jersey is probably the single biggest source of motivation. Then again, it is England, and not only have Ireland denied England a Slam in 2001 and 2011, but they are far from alone in doing this.
Rory Best said on Friday that Ireland “take too much pride in our performance” to worry about denying England a Grand Slam.
“We’re well aware of what England are going for, but for us I suppose it’s St Paddy’s weekend, we’re at home and we have a very proud record at home as well, and we take huge confidence from that. So we have focused on how to beat England, we haven’t focused on the reasons why we’ll beat them. We’ll beat England because we’re pulling on a green jersey, because we’re at home and we expect probably a better, more consistent performance over the 80 minutes than we’ve delivered so far in this championship.”
“They’re playing for a Grand Slam, but we’ve got a home record we want to keep intact. We’re back in front of our home fans. There has been a lot made about this game so there is pressure on from that side for us. Look, ultimately we want to finish with a massive result. I don’t think that their want is any more than ours.”
Maybe a 61-21 win has lulled England into a false sense of security, or at any rate into that innately English sense of superiority they often bring with them to this side of the Irish Sea. But it seems unlikely.
Recent history has shown us they finish jobs, be it completing a 3-0 whitewash in Australia last summer or completing last season’s Grand Slam in Paris – both away from home.
One suspects Ireland have a big performance left in them, and can even take England to the wire. It’s just that, helped by their bench, England have proven themselves to be a true 80-minute team.
IRELAND: Jared Payne (Ulster); Keith Earls (Munster), Garry Ringrose (Leinster), Robbie Henshaw (Leinster), Simon Zebo (Munster); Jonathan Sexton (Leinster), Kieran Marmion (Connacht); Jack McGrath (Leinster), Rory Best (Ulster, capt), Tadhg Furlong (Leinster); Donnacha Ryan (Munster), Iain Henderson (Ulster); CJ Stander (Munster), Seán O'Brien (Leinster), Jamie Heaslip (Leinster).
Replacements: Niall Scannell (Munster), Cian Healy (Leinster), John Ryan (Munster), Devin Toner (Leinster), Peter O'Mahony (Munster), Luke McGrath (Leinster), Paddy Jackson (Ulster), Andrew Conway (Munster).
ENGLAND: M Brown (Harlequins); A Watson (Bath), J Joseph (Bath), O Farrell (Saracens), E Daly (Wasps); G Ford (Bath), B Youngs (Leicester); J Marler (Harlequins) D Hartley (Northampton, capt), D Cole (Leicester); J Launchbury (Wasps), C Lawes (Northampton); M Itoje (Saracens), J Haskell (Wasps), B Vunipola (Saracens).
Replacements: J George (Saracens), M Vunipola (Saracens), K Sinckler (Harlequins), T Wood (Northampton), N Hughes (Wasps), D Care (Harlequins), B Te’o (Worcester), J Nowell (Exeter).
Last three years: (2014) England 13 Ireland 10, Twickenham. (2015) Ireland 19 England 9, Aviva Stadium. RWC warm-up: England 21 Ireland 13, Twickenham. (2016) England 21 Ireland 10, Twickenham.
Overall head to head: Played 131. Ireland 47 wins. Draws 8, England 76 wins.
Betting (Paddy Power): 13/8 Ireland, 20/1 Draw, 4/7 England. Handicap odds (Ireland +4pts) Evens Ireland, 22/1 Draw, Evens England.
Forecast: England to win.