Joe Schmidt not daring to dream as historic opportunity beckons
Henderson the only change to starting Ireland XV as Jones opts for radical surgery
It’s surely a measure of how much Ireland have progressed and England regressed that whereas Joe Schmidt has made only change to his starting XV, Eddie Jones has made seven and a couple of positional switches.
Another measure is that whereas England were warm favourites for tomorrow’s grand finale at Twickenham (kick-off 2.45pm) before suffering successive defeats, the bookies now make it a scratch game.
England are at home, albeit Ireland are in a better place. Yet it’s on the day, and while the travelling support hope to be in dreamland come Saturday tea-time, Joe Schmidt yesterday spoke of almost daring not to dream.
He thinks he’s succeeded. Fear of failure tempers any temptation to dream, as does the sense of opportunity and weight of history that comes with the carrot of only Ireland’s third Grand Slam ever.
“I don’t know about the players, but I would be very much a glass half-full person. I get excited about the group we have and how hard we work, but I’d be very balanced from the perspective of being a pragmatist at the same time. There is no point in dreaming beyond this Saturday, because this Saturday is a finite point for us where a number of things have to happen and go right.
“I wouldn’t say that you can control that emotional rollercoaster that preparing a high-level sports team kind of engenders, because there are times where you inevitably imagine the worst case scenario. Worst case scenario is that England hit the ground running and they actually win with a bit to spare. That would be a bit of a crushing scenario. It would be a crushing way for us to finish a year of being unbeaten.
“A potential opportunity that has only been done twice before, I’d be more motivated and scared by that than thinking about how fantastic it would be to do something that would be another step for this group into kind of stretching themselves beyond what they’ve done before.”
Schmidt played down Eddie Jones infamous description of England’s sole defeat last season to “the scummy Irish” by saying: “I know there is a little bit of noise about them. They are not directly relevant to us to be honest.”
Schmidt’s one change is to recall Iain Henderson, who was effectively the match-winner in last season’s 13-9 win at home to England when scoring the game’s only try.
“His ability to keep his feet under him and power his way through to reach out and score– that was something that we really needed at the time, and it was the difference in the game really – a four-point margin with a seven-point score it makes a difference for us.
“I think what people don’t realise is he’s a very intelligent man,” added Schmidt, also recalling how Henderson called the lineouts that day. “Iain was absolutely nailed on and did a super job for us.
“There are a number of strings to his bow. He can be very physical defensively as well. I’ll never forget when we played France a few years ago in the World Cup, he virtually picked Bernard Le Roux up, almost tucking him under his arm and taking him back 10 metres. That’s when you lift the whole team, when you deliver that sort of physical contribution.”
Ireland were forced to play without Conor Murray and Jamie Heaslip at short notice that day, which gives Schmidt confidence in the “character” of his players. Despite losing some of those players since – such as Jared Payne, Robbie Henshaw, and Sean O’Brien – he also noted “the guys who’ve come in have demonstrated a similar level of commitment, of the ability to be accurate and stay tuned in during those real pressure moments that happen in these really big Test matches.”
Yet, to put the scale of this challenge in context, Schmidt recalled the 13-10 defeat in Twickenham four years ago, but for which Ireland would have won the Slam as well as the title, and reckoned it was Ireland’s best performance out of five in what he described as a high-quality Test match.
Also recalling that the ball was hardly out of play for the first four-and-a-half minutes save for one quick throw, he anticipates another high-tempo game tomorrow.
“I think so, because I do think that England will want to play. They will want to come at us, they will want to have the ball on the pitch and they will work hard to make sure that’s the case. As much as all of the myths and evaluations of game minutes get thrown around there – 44 minutes of ball in play time in our Scotland game was about 10 minutes more than the average – it’s something that could well be repeated this weekend because they are desperate to win and so are we.
“Maybe they will have a plan on how to do it and it will be based on a real balance of being smart and physical. Owen Farrell, [Richard] Wigglesworth are incredibly smart players. They have the ball on a string, they can put it in behind you or up in the air to contest it and at the same time they have got some phenomenal ball carriers, we know what Ben Te’o can do – particularly directly – but we know how elusive the likes of Jonny May, Anthony Watson, Elliot Daly, Jonathan Joseph [can be]. We know what they’re like.”
“They’ve got a high energy pack there, (Sam) Simmonds is very quick, they often leave him in the back-field to bring the ball back he’s so quick. He’s a handful. He often gets on the ball as well, so we will have to be on our mettle across the park.”
ENGLAND: A Watson; J May, J Joseph, B Te’o, E Daly; O Farrell, R Wigglesworth; M Vunipola, D Hartley (capt), K Sinckler; M Itoje, G Kruis; C Robshaw, J Haskell, S Simmonds.
Replacements: Jamie George, Joe Marler, Dan Cole Joe Launchbury, Don Armand, Danny Care, George Ford, Mike Brown
IRELAND: R Kearney; K Earls, G Ringrose, B Aki, J Stockdale; J Sexton, C Murray; C Healy, R Best (capt), T Furlong; J Ryan, I Henderson; P O’Mahony, D Leavy, CJ Stander.
Replacements: S Cronin, J McGrath, A Porter, D Toner, J Murphy, K Marmion, J Carbery, J Larmour.