George Hook: Triple Crown on the cards if Ireland can take Care
Shackling dangerous scrum-half will go a long way to neutralising English game plan
Published 22/02/2014 | 02:30
It is difficult to predict how England will cope without Dan Cole this afternoon. The Leicester tighthead has been a mainstay of the England front-row for the last few years and while the English media compare his loss to Achilles fleeing from the Trojan War, I'm not convinced Cole is as important as the frantic fourth estate are making out.
Like many taller props in the professional game, Cole has struggled to adapt to the changes in scrum engagement. His two main advantages – his 6ft 3in frame and his 18-and-a-half stone weight – were largely diminished when the IRB decided to remove the hit as a weapon in the scrum. As such, Cole, along with every other prop in world rugby, has had to place technique before brute strength.
He was found out badly at the Stade de France in the opening round. In Paris, the smaller, squatter frame of Thomas Domingo twisted and turned his English opponent into submission and France reaped the rewards.
England's problem this afternoon is not that Cole is irreplaceable, it is that his replacement, David Wilson, has seen very little game time at international level and is only just returning from injury.
England's tighthead plight reminds me of Ireland's struggle in the John Hayes era. Every time the Bull took to the field in an Ireland jersey, coaches, selectors and fans crossed their fingers that Hayes would come through the game unscathed.
For years, Ireland had no back-up plan to the Munster tighthead and while Hayes was never the greatest scrummager, the over-reliance on his ability to prop up the scrum placed Ireland in a vulnerable position.
This afternoon, England have been forced into starting Wilson for only the eighth time; hardly a sign of confidence in his ability at almost 29 years of age. Cian Healy will target the Bath prop and Ireland should look to dominate the set-piece. An early victory in the scrum will get referee Craig Joubert on side.
For Joe Schmidt, the battle today will be won up front. England's performance in round two against one of the worst Scotland teams in history was functional but uninspiring. On at least eight occasions, England failed to maul Scotland over the line from a five-metre line-out. This has to be a worry for Stuart Lancaster as he prepares his pack to face one of the form mauls in the international game.
John Plumtree's stamp is clearly evident on this Ireland team, even at this early stage. The manner in which the pack dismantled Wales suggests England will be in for a tough afternoon. Historically, England have always had size and brute strength on their side, but Ireland are well equipped in the physical stakes, even without Sean O'Brien.
Chris Henry and Peter O'Mahony must secure ball on the ground and prevent England from dictating the pace of play. The best way to do that is to stop Danny Care.
England's scrum-half is their key player this season. Lancaster's bizarre decision to substitute Care in Paris ultimately cost England the game. The head coach will not make the same mistake again.
Care's resurgence for club and country is a testament to his character strength. Off-field problems threatened to derail his promising career but it is a credit to himself and the support structures at Harlequins that Care has come out the other side.
He is a menace at the base of a ruck and will punish any defensive lapses in the Ireland line.
If Ireland stop Care, they stop England's game plan.
Schmidt's decision to leave out Donnacha Ryan in favour of the young Iain Henderson is questionable. Henderson is a superb talent, but for the day that's in it, against England at Twickenham, Ryan's experience and aggression are tailor-made to spring from the bench.
The Munster lock made a welcome return to action against Zebre at Musgrave Park last weekend and his performance there should have been enough to see him included in the match-day squad. Henderson is the future but Ryan has the mad dog for the fight this afternoon.
Simon Zebo must be scratching his head in bemusement. Clearly Schmidt has a problem with the 23-year-old, who continues to be ignored despite three tries in his last two games for Munster. Nobody can convince me that Fergus McFadden offers more of a threat off the bench than Zebo.
Whatever the problem is between coach and player, it must be sorted out for the good of the team. Zebo is too talented to remain in exile.
Momentum is with Ireland. Back-to-back wins over Scotland and Wales have banished the doom and gloom of the final weeks of the Declan Kidney era. Ireland look fit, organised and supremely motivated.
England will come for a fight but Ireland must stick to Schmidt's game plan and remain composed in their execution. O'Mahony got lucky on a few occasions against Wales but Joubert is notoriously strict at the breakdown, so discipline and timing are key.
Ireland have a better pack, a better fly-half and the experience in the right areas to win this game. Victory and a Triple Crown are there for the taking.