Sport International Rugby

Thursday 8 December 2016

Ireland's opportunity to lay down a marker against England

Derailing England's Chariot can be perfect launch-pad for Ireland’s bid to take on the World

Published 05/09/2015 | 02:30

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Conor Murray in action during yesterday’s captain’s run at Twickenham. Joe Schmidt will be looking for Murray and Johnny Sexton to be up to full speed BRENDAN MORAN / SPORTSFILE

If Ireland are back at Twickenham next month, they'll have made history by reaching a World Cup semi-final for the first time. A strong performance and a victory to go with it today would set them up nicely to achieve that goal.

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Publicly, Joe Schmidt is all about the display. He wants to see cohesion in attack and defensive stability, while he will have drilled discipline into his players all week.

Privately, he'd love a win. Results against England are hard-got and cherished, but leaving London with the spoils would re-emphasise place in the world order before the tournament gets going.

After a humbling defeat by France in Paris, the hosts are desperate to get one last win to breathe oxygen into their campaign, which kicks off against Fiji in 13 days' time.

Forwards coach Graham Rowntree said that England have ramped down their heavy training this week and are now in World Cup mode.

Yesterday, he was asked if a return to Twickenham signified the beginning of the tournament and his response should be music to Schmidt's ears.

Performance

"Absolutely, we're at home," he said. "We'll be the first to say our last two performances have not been our best and we want to put that right. We're at Twickenham and it's World Cup month.

"August was tough for us on many fronts, physically, mentally, particularly last week. But it's a new month, a new start, a World Cup month and this is the first game of our World Cup."

With such a tough pool, England need to hit the ground running but Ireland are on a gentler curve.

By naming most of the side ­expected to feature against France in a month's time, Schmidt has ­combinations on his mind and will want to see signs that his key partnerships are clicking into gear.

Warren Gatland's criticism of Ireland's attacking game will have stung him and the Kiwi will want to see more structure in his side's game when they have ball in hand.

England will be just as difficult to crack as Wales were, although France showed how they can be broken down if they're taken through the phases.

This is where Ireland must improve. Against Wales, as happened so often during the Six Nations, they lost their shape the longer the play went on, often struggling in contact and going backwards in the tackle.

Eventually, they either got turned over or kicked the ball away. If they are to truly succeed at this World Cup, they need to be able to sustain their attack and probe for holes, work and exploit mismatches, and carry a threat.

Ireland have scored a try a game against England in their last two meetings. One was a pre-planned move that saw Rob Kearney scorch over, the other was Conor Murray's chip and Robbie Henshaw's unforgettably athletic catch over Alex Goode's head.

Against Wales, Iain Henderson and Henshaw were the only ball-carriers capable of consistently generating go-forward ball and they'll want to see Sean O'Brien, Jamie Heaslip and Jack McGrath getting over the advantage line.

England don't often go backwards in the collision, but with pool rivals France offering even more size and physicality, the men in green will want to show they can compete on this scale.

"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," Paul O'Connell said. "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.

"What's gone into addressing it? The week between playing Wales and England you can't really smash each other that much. We put a big focus on it when we address it in meetings and there's a big focus on it in training but not in a physical sense.

"It's something when we have slipped off it, once it's pointed out to us, once we see it on the big screen, we've been quite good at addressing it in the past, so hopefully that will happen this weekend."

With O'Brien in for his second start of the warm-ups, they'll also hope for an improvement at the breakdown where Justin Tipuric lorded things at the Aviva Stadium.

England don't deploy a specialist openside and will hope that they can bully Ireland in contact to negate the breakdown as much as possible.

With Nigel Owens in charge, Schmidt will hope for a better deal from the officials after being whistled off the park by Craig Joubert. No doubt he'll have spent the week re-emphasising discipline in order to get back on the right side of officialdom in time for the pool stages.

The return of Mike Ross after a rare break from the starting XV lends stability, even though he's had his problems opposite Joe Marler in the past, while the rest of the tight five should work well together.

The big fear is an early injury for Jack McGrath given Tadhg Furlong's lack of experience at loosehead.

Schmidt's decision to take two scrum-halves has overshadowed the call to use the Wexford tighthead as cover for the No 1, but he could be in for a rude awakening tomorrow if Furlong has to go head-to-head with Dan Cole for an extended period.

The 22-year-old is a real prospect and, injury-permitting, has a long international career ahead of him, but it's a big leap to from scrummaging at underage to taking on one of the best and most experienced tightheads in the game in front of 82,000 people.

Simon Easterby's assurances about Furlong at yesterday's Captain's Run press conference rang hollow, with the forwards coach arguing a week's training and a few years at tighthead were enough for him to cope at this level.

"There are differences to the two positions but he's a bright kid," the forwards coach said.

"He understands what it takes to try and battle against a loosehead and maybe what a loosehead is trying to do to him as a tighthead. That adds value to his position and value to what he brought this week, which has been excellent in terms of his training time and the work he's done."

Perhaps Ross's assertion that it's like writing with your left hand was more apt.

Assurances

It will be interesting to watch how Schmidt plays it if the game is tight in the closing quarters. Given Cian Healy's injury struggles, McGrath is hugely important to Ireland's campaign so does the coach leave him in there and go for the win or whisk him off to give Furlong a try.

Such is the nature of the warm-up game. Ultimately, no one will remember the result in a month's time, but the lift that beating England on their own patch two weeks out from their home tournament would give Paul O'Connell's men a real fillip.

England will give Ireland's set-piece a full and proper going over, with Devin Toner under pressure to perform after Henderson's performance last week.

In the back-line, Schmidt will be looking for Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton to be up to speed, with Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne linking well in midfield and the back three getting involved as much as possible.

Signs of progression would be a positive thing, but a win over the old enemy on their own patch less than two weeks from their own World Cup would be something to cherish and the perfect launch-pad for Ireland's tournament.

Verdict: England

Irish Independent

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