Friday 18 August 2017

Vincent Hogan: Ireland has been a graveyard for English Grand Slams

Tindall sounds a note of caution as England chase record

Mike Tindall prepares to take on Gordon D’Arcy during England’s 2011 clash in Dublin, Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images
Mike Tindall prepares to take on Gordon D’Arcy during England’s 2011 clash in Dublin, Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Once home from Twickenham last Saturday night, Mike Tindall sat down to make sense of Ireland's loss to Wales. It was a struggle.

The experience had to feel the equivalent of stepping from great, soaring ballet to a slapstick spectacle of workmen tripping over wooden pallets. On the evidence of last weekend, Dublin should host a bloodless coronation next Saturday...England chasing a world record of consecutive Test wins and another Grand Slam against hosts whose November confidence looks to have receded chronically.

Yet, Tindall talks of bats being in the rafters of every English mind this week.

The '03 World Cup winner reflects: "You know Ireland has been a graveyard for English Grand Slams before, so England are going to have to go over there fully prepared to go to war.

"Ireland will be hurting and there's no better team in world rugby to respond to hardship than the Irish, especially when England are in town.

"In my view, England are about to take on what will be a hurt, very proud Irish team determined to spoil the party. And if England aren't on their mettle and ready to play, they'll be in trouble. Because, let's be honest, Ireland will want to win this more than anything now.

"It will be like winning the title to them if they can stop that Grand Slam."

Of Tindall's 75 international caps, seven were won against Ireland. He made his debut in a record Twickenham massacre (50-18) of Warren Gatland's team in 2000 and his first three Test matches against Ireland were won by an astonishing average of 34 points. The highest arc of that English side's accomplishments came in '03 when they finally secured a Grand Slam for Clive Woodward (winning 42-6 in Dublin) before becoming the first (and still only) Northern Hemisphere team to win the Webb Ellis Cup.

Yet Ireland won five of the next six Tests between the countries, two of them momentous events in Croke Park.

Tindall has especially vivid memories of that historic '07 game. The depth of emotion so palpable in a 43-13 Irish victory was not lost on a traumatised English team.

"There was a lot made of the history around that game," he remembers now. "Would people protest? Would there be trouble? Questions you don't ordinarily associate with a rugby game. So it was a strange build-up. There was a lot of tension around, wondering if people were going to take offence at us being there. I remember getting on the bus beforehand and thinking, 'Is this going to be an eventful bus ride?' You genuinely wondered if something bad was going to happen.

"But it didn't. It was perfectly handled in every way. And that stadium is such an amazing place. You know we understood the history of it and why there were issues around the game. We had to be respectful of that. But then we got there and, like Ireland can do, they just lifted their game maybe 30-40pc. And there was no chance, no chance in any way that they were losing that game.

"They were setting a standard in this stadium that holds such a special place in Irish hearts. The stuff people were worried about...would the English anthem be booed, that sort of thing...was never even in the air. It was fully respectful, an attitude of let the players do the talking. And, of course, the Irish did by absolutely destroying us.

"Which is why I'm a little wary of next weekend now. Because I think Ireland are one of those teams...you look at the New Zealand performance last November so soon after 'Axel' (Anthony Foley) dying - that when they have a cause to play for, they can raise their game further than anybody else."

Still, what England did to Scotland on Saturday did seem to speak of a group now growing rather relentlessly under Eddie Jones. After slow starts in their previous three games, they had the Scots in crisis immediately from Fraser Brown's second-minute yellow card. And Tindall believes the squad at Jones's disposal is stronger now than it was when the Championship began.

"I know Scotland didn't exactly put their best foot forward on Saturday," he reflects "but England still looked very, very clinical. And when you can bring on Danny Care and the two Vunipolas, when you have Anthony Watson back, it's a scary 23 they have.

"OK, the early yellow put Scotland on the back foot, but England made them pay for it. And they have shown last summer and into the autumn that, once they get their foot on your throat, they happily squeeze it. The beauty of this for England supporters is that a good 30pc of the starting 15 weren't available at the start of this Championship.

"And I think they've found another group of players who can step up and play. But this is the crunch game for them now."

Tindall fully expected Ireland to win in Cardiff, but believes the defeats to Scotland and Wales in this tournament reflect a team still struggling to find consistency.

"I still get the impression that Joe Schmidt is blooding people a little bit," he suggests. "And it's been difficult, especially with Johnny Sexton in and out. I mean there's still, without doubt, huge quality throughout that Irish squad. I'd say they found it a bit of a struggle at first when Brian O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy retired.

"But in [Robbie] Henshaw and [Garry] Ringrose, I think Ireland found two centres who can take on that mantle now. They're not fully settled in their roles in terms of how they fit into that team, but they're serious players. And with the quality Ireland have got in their back-row, it's not going to be long before Ireland are winning again.

"It's been a bit of a could-have-been Six Nations for them, but that consistency can't be far away."

A major sub-plot to next Saturday's game will, undoubtedly, be the battle for Lions places and, while Tindall believes that matter will be parked for 80 minutes, it will undoubtedly be on players' minds during this week's build-up.

"When the game comes around, that's the furthest thing from your mind," he says. "But if you're Warren Gatland, you want to see people who can perform away from home especially, who can take their game on the road. Because, ultimately, they're going to the hardest place on the planet to play rugby so you need to be able to travel and do your stuff.

"That'll be on a lot of England players' minds this week, showing they're up to that challenge.

"But then you also look at people like Rhys Webb and Conor Murray, who would have been seen as toe-to-toe for the nine jersey last week. Webb probably came out on top last Friday, so it's a big game for a lot of Irish guys who want to go on that tour too."

In that context then, how will Gatland read Sexton's recent record with injuries?

"That's a difficult one," suggests Tindall "because one thing Sexton has shown us is that he can come back from not much rugby and play at a high level. He's done that numerous times for Ireland. But I think Gatland will want him going into this tour having a run of games. He wouldn't want to see him getting any more injuries.

"I think if Johnny gets another injury, he could become a concern. He'll still be on the plane, but it just means you have to consider who else you're going to take. Because you know what rugby's like. If he goes over there still with niggles, New Zealand will send all their big runners at him like any team would do, looking to see if he's healthy."

Memory

Tindall will be in Dublin on Friday to play for the England Legends against Ireland at the RDS, in a game honouring the memory of Foley. He did not know the Munster man well off the field, yet remembers him as "a warrior" on it. "He was like a cyborg in terms of never seeming to tire," remembers Tindall.

"I always saw him as an embodiment of that Irish never-say-die spirit."

Twenty-four hours later, England will be favourites to collect that world record 19th consecutive Test victory and another Grand Slam now, mainly because of the steel Jones has put in the group.

"What he's done is he's just given the players a little bit of belief," reflects Tindall. "He's hard on them, which I think they need. He questions them in a way that I don't think they've been questioned before. He's very good at keeping them grounded. And they've responded well to that.

"Suddenly he's got a pool of about 50 players, any one of which he'd be quite happy to put on the field. All credit to him, that's a very, very rare place to be. But you know they're going to have all of that going to Ireland.

"Because some of us know from personal experience, it's one of the hardest places in world rugby to go when they have a cause."

  • Tickets, priced at €15 each (€10 students and OAP), for Friday's Ireland v England Legends at the RDS (6.0) are available from Ticketmaster

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