Stress test for Ireland against England’s bulldozer squad
With Tuilagi, Vunipola and Underhill on board, no wonder the pundits are worried
Manu Tuilagi celebrates after England’s 2019 Six Nations Championship Round 1 win over Ireland at the Aviva Stadium in February. Photograph: Gary Carr/Inpho
World Cup warm-up: England v Ireland
Kick-off: Saturday, 3pm. Venue: Twickenham. How to follow: The Irish Times liveblog will begin from 2.30pm. On TV: Live on Sky Sports Main Event and Sky Sports Action.
Two articles published this week capture the zeitgeist, at least temporarily, as the rugby season is set to catch fire. If one story makes for grim reading, the other warns of horrendous consequences for the modern player’s psyche.
Like the rest of us, Gordon D’Arcy is worried due to Ireland’s lack of creative spark in 2019. D’Arcy’s foreboding words are countered by The42.ie’s ode to Joe Schmidt’s already mystical playbook. Murray Kinsella’s top five attacking moves excluded Jacob Stockdale’s slick Murrayfield try and that sneaky Keith Earls score against France.
Both had the 53-year-old Kiwi’s fingerprints all over them. It’s safe to expect new and improved set-piece gems in Japan. All the other points can come via rugby-by-numbers. There, seemingly, lies the masterplan in a nutshell.
The antidote to Schmidt’s Ireland is also readily available. England came to Dublin last February, bulldozing to rubble the previously foolproof Irish approach of 2018. England reborn – thanks to the return of Billy Vunipola and Manu Tuilagi – showed Ireland or Ireland-lite (Leinster) are unable to cope with the Saracens-inspired methodology.
Two examples should jog the memory. The Six Nations was 39 seconds old when Jamie George flung a ball over the lineout for the onrushing Tuilagi. Big Kyle Sinclair carried hard before Tuilagi was up and at it again, with his one-hand offload allowing Ben Youngs to slingshot Tom Curry into the Irish 22. Everything seemed choreographed when Sinclair carried again.
Humiliated 11 months previously at Twickenham – sans Vunipola and Tuilagi – when forced to host Ireland’s Grand Slam celebrations, the Englishman never forgets. Vunipola’s outside-to-in charge was already in motion when Owen Farrell grasped Youngs’s next pass. The Tongan number eight bounced Devin Toner but Bundee Aki met him on the gainline. Vunipola easily twisted and turned to pop another one-hand offload for Youngs, with the match clock flashing 1:31 when Farrell’s controlled cut out pass allowed Elliot Daly to put Jonny May over in the left corner.
That England team is strengthened on Saturday afternoon by superstar-in-waiting Sam Underhill.
Skip to St James’ Park in May, to find Leinster and Saracens locked together (10-10) on 55 minutes when Scott Fardy gets sin-binned on his own try line. Sarries, smelling blood, scrum down. Vunipola picks from the base, with those humongous quadriceps already propelling him forward as Rhys Ruddock’s side-on tackle fails to stall him. Johnny Sexton, Luke McGrath and James Lowe are skittled underneath the crossbar.
That’s why so many people relate to D’Arcy’s column. Both defeats felt clean and comprehensive. The collective fear needs calming this afternoon.
Apparently a dose of spectator nerves is nothing compared to the acute anxiety felt by the players. The second piece that sucked any joie de vivre from rugby this week was Rob Kitson’s interview in the Guardian with recently retired Wasps lock Kearnan Myall.
“There are several England players I know who dread going into camp,” said Myall. “They don’t want to go there. It’s nothing to do with being worried about the physical aspects of training, or the media. It’s a combination of pressure, scrutiny, what’s going to be said and what they’re going to be made to do within the confines of the camp. What are the longevity of those sort of tactics?”
Myall’s warning comes with a foreboding promise: “The pressures in rugby are only going to get bigger. They’re increasing season on season far quicker than anything that is supposed to be helping people.”
This, seemingly, is the norm.
Onwards to Twickenham where England’s multiple enforcers are gunning for certain Ireland individuals
“The stress,” Peter O’Mahony told Off The Ball. “The stress levels are a different level when it comes to international rugby. It certainly hasn’t gotten any easier.”
You wonder what the game is doing to its heroes for the sake of entertainment, and profit.
“Nerves and pressure,” O’Mahony continued. “I remember meeting my old fella in the Shelbourne before a game and I was sick with nerves. Like, white as a sheet. I was in a bad place.”
Flip that to reveal the serotonin rush that follows success. The suffocating pressure spikes from now on. Enda McNulty’s calming presence was visible in the Ireland camp this month. But McNulty is a performance coach who helps to channel the nerves towards the ultimate goal, which is about doing whatever it takes to win.
Onwards to Twickenham where England’s multiple enforcers are gunning for certain Ireland individuals. Interestingly, Sexton and James Ryan are spared such exposure with their seasons presumably igniting against Wales (or later still). Where some players can be replaced, others leave a void; Sexton would be an enormous loss, yet manageable if Joey Carbery recovers, but Ireland cannot cope without their latest once-in-a-generation player. Ryan is that man.
No team is safe. England are not the same force without Billy and Manu making child’s play of test matches. New Zealand must already make do without Damian McKenzie and Brodie Retallick (at least until later in the tournament); the Wallabies are probably better off without Israel Folau, but he was rugby union’s only otherworldly athlete.
How Ireland overcome their quarter-final opponent must be revealed against England because from now until October 19th the defenders will be significantly smaller. Fodder for Schmidt’s meticulously relentless phase play.
If Vunipola and Tuilagi cannot be stopped Ireland must score more points. If only to allay Gordon’s valid concerns.