Ireland victory will be improved performances and no injuries
A match against England is never a friendly, but winning is not the biggest concern
Paul O’Connell in Twickenham: “For me when you play England, you always think of the size of the players.” Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
This almost feels a little like the start of the World Cup. It’s Twickenham, all the squads have been named and England kick off the global, four-year jamboree back here in 13 days’ time against Fiji. Besides which, England and Ireland don’t really do friendlies.
It isn’t quite the real thing yet, of course, and as Joe Schmidt said on Thursday, the result of this final dress rehearsal is not crucial but the performance and avoiding injury are.
Indeed, it’s worth recalling that England won the corresponding final warm-up game between these countries four years ago by 20-9 at the Aviva Stadium – and look what happened next. Each went home after the quarter-final weekend, but where England went home amid bad headlines connected to performances on and off the pitch, Ireland had at least translated four warm-up defeats into four pool wins before that crushing anti-climax against Wales.
Speaking after Ireland’s run-out at Twickenham yesterday, Paul O’Connell was acutely aware of the physical challenge they will face and how the recall of Geoff Parling and Tom Wood ought to improve the line-out which faltered in Paris as part of a general backlash from that game. Even still, England came back strongly and showed they can hurt a team in more ways than France appear equipped to do – or inclined to do at any rate.
“This English side is an excellent team,” said O’Connell. “They’ve played great rugby. I spent the morning doing a lot of the player profiles. You’ve guys with incredible skill levels, incredible footwork and great attacking play.
“On top of that England then have a great structure in place in how they play, but for me when you play England you always think of the size of the players. They’re always a big, strong squad. There’s also a big, strong bench that’s going to come off and come at you as well. So yeah, it is a very, very tough place to come and it is an intimidating ground to play in.”
“Everyone has great structure when they have ball that’s relatively quick and well presented and I don’t think we did that very well last weekend,” O’Connell said. “I suppose it’s kind of chicken and egg, one of them has to come first.
“For us, the contact area is really important. What we do at the ruck, what we do when we carry, how we place the ball is really important to providing us with structure that can give us a chance of producing breaks or half-breaks that put us on the front foot.”
The game is also about realigning and fine-tuning or even trying new combinations. For example, the Robbie Henshaw-Jared Payne combination may be, as Schmidt said last Tuesday after surprisingly including Darren Cave as specialist cover, a “makeshift midfield”. But at least this is their seventh outing together.
It has been a problem area for England since Will Greenwood retired and all the more so after Manu Tuilagi became a long-term casualty. The English midfield of Brad Barritt and Jonathan Joseph is regarded as a possible first-choice pairing, yet this will be the first time they have started a game together and the first time they have played together since the last 14 minutes of the win over New Zealand in 2012. Go figure.
And please no injuries, least of all like David Wallace’s in this fixture four years ago. For example, woe betide the Irish scrum if anything untoward should befall Jack McGrath, as then Tadhg Furlong will go from a fledgling pro career as a tight-head and one cap there a week to scrumming down at loose-head against Dan Cole.
ReplacementTom CourtMike Ross
Nonetheless, regarding Furlong covering loose-head, where he last played in his school days, Simon Easterby said: “We feel really confident that he’s a bright kid, he takes things on board really quickly, he’s working really well with Greg Feek and he has the support of his provincial hookers with him at times, he has Rory Best on his inside as well.”
“He scrums against loose-heads a lot. He has been excellent in terms of his training time and the work he’s done, and the extra work he’s done to put himself into a really strong position tomorrow.”
Otherwise though, this is a strong and proven Irish selection. Many of the key men, not least Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton, should have benefitted from last week’s return to action. And this is more of a shot to nothing for them. But all in all, after the scathing criticism they copped in the fall-out of the beating which their pack took in Paris two weeks ago, England’s need looks the more acute. And it is Twickenham.