Dusted down and ready to rumble
Forwards hold the key for Kidney's men to rise from rubble of paris and rock Twickenham
Published 27/02/2010 | 05:00
RENOWNED Australian coach Alan Jones, who led Mark Ella and the Wallabies on their triumphant tour of Europe in 1984, had a saying: "A rooster one day, a feather duster the next."
The late Mick Doyle coached Ireland against the Wallabies on that tour, but his present-day counterpart Declan Kidney and his Ireland charges could relate to the sentiment after two weeks of fall-out from the 33-10 defeat in Paris.
It was, after all, one loss in 13 matches, but the reverse, and the nature of it, sparked a knee-jerk reaction in various quarters somewhat out of proportion with the realities of the situation.
Given society's modern, multi-outlet capacity for instant, uncensored response, perhaps this should not have come as a major surprise -- "it is what it is," as Kidney himself might put it -- but a back-up defeat in Twickenham today and the scrutiny, hysterical or otherwise, can be expected to ratchet up a few notches.
Grand Slams come with raised bars attached and once that feat was achieved last March, it was about backing up that milestone and bringing it towards the World Cup next year.
In this regard, it is essential this Ireland squad gets Paris out of its system immediately by securing a victory of any description today. It would be a worthy achievement, because England, despite justifiable criticism for the manner of their opening Six Nations encounters, have the confidence that stems from a two-from-two winning run and the benefit of home ground and lusty support.
An Irish victory in those circumstances would be reaffirming for Kidney's men. They could then negotiate the home fixtures against Wales and Scotland with a certain degree of latitude and use the belief that comes from a significant away victory as ballast for this summer's southern hemisphere tour -- a crucial undertaking looking ahead to New Zealand 2011. Defeat today and further doubt starts to set in.
So, how do Ireland go about it?
Well, the team selection was a good start. Although there have been injury and suspension issues to negotiate this campaign, unlike in 2009, Kidney has brought an impressive line-up to London.
Yes, it was hard on Leo Cullen to lose his second-row slot after two excellent showings, but there was never an issue about the quality of his replacement Donncha O'Callaghan, merely concerns relating to his month on the sideline recovering from a medial knee injury.
However, Kidney and forwards coach Gert Smal would not have gone with the Munster man if they did not feel he was perfectly equipped for what promises to be an uber-physical challenge and they have more than earned the right to have that judgement supported.
Rory Best for Jerry Flannery had a comfortingly familiar feel to it and Geordan Murphy, though with just one game under his belt after injury, is a quality, experienced operator.
Jonathan Sexton deserves his chance at out-half and, while there were calls for him to be partnered with Leinster colleague Eoin Reddan, Tomas O'Leary (not helped by France's forward superiority) was entitled to one sub-par performance and is needed for his physical presence against England's pick-and-go merchants today.
The starting point for Ireland is to match the England eight in a manner the Irish forwards were unable to manage against the French -- lose the physical battle here and the whole exercise is scuppered.
The scrum, which battled gamely under pressure in Paris, should be capable of matching the English, who do not have the same destructive scrummagers or style of the French, and provide No 8 Jamie Heaslip with the platform he craves.
The line-out battle will be crucial. England captain Steve Borthwick is a limited international second-row, but an astute student of line-out play and Ireland, comfortably superior out of touch against Italy and France, will be tested in the air today. Cullen has done very well in this regard, but O'Callaghan, as he showed last year, particularly on the Lions tour, is an excellent line-out operator himself and you would imagine the contest for aerial possession would break even.
The other staple of forward play where Ireland must have consistency today is at the re-starts -- an oft-overlooked area, but one where errors can have weighty consequences.
Then there is the breakdown and, as ever, the interpretations of the referee (South African Mark Lawrence) will be crucial in this regard. Ireland need quick ball here and possess the superior back-row, as last summer's Lions selections showed -- though Lewis Moody needs to be monitored carefully.
Stephen Ferris and David Wallace were quiet by their standards in Paris, so we can expect them to make their presence felt today, while Heaslip has become personification of consistent excellence.
With quick possession, Ireland have the backline to make it pay. Sexton showed again last weekend (albeit against the Scarlets) his capacity for bringing his outside backs into play and, between a midfield of Gordon D'Arcy and Brian O'Driscoll and a back three of Murphy, Tommy Bowe and Keith Earls, there is considerable attacking potential to tap into.
Kick-chase will also play a crucial role and O'Leary and Sexton must give their team-mates something to run onto. Targeting Delon Armitage and Ugo Monye could also pay dividends offensively.
A huge responsibility rests on the shoulders of Sexton. The St Mary's man showed against South Africa last November that he possesses the mental strength and playing ability to be a success at this level and this is just the sort of challenge to bring him on. Having Ronan O'Gara on the bench strengthens Irish options.
While England's attacking ploys have revolved around forward rumbles and the kicking of out-half Jonny Wilkinson, they also have some decent strike runners in Riki Flutey, Mathew Tait, Armitage and Monye.
Les Kiss' defensive system, which wobbled in Paris when the 'shooters' were taken out of play by the rampant French, badly needs to reassert itself today and you would back it to do so, with O'Leary and the back-row crucial in mowing down the round-the-corner runs of Nick Easter, James Haskell and Simon Shaw.
And finally, the Irish must keep their discipline -- Paris showed once again how yellow cards can be game-deciding.
England will score points through Wilkinson, but if Ireland's defence can return to its shut-out ways, there is greater potential in the visitors' line-up for touchdowns which are likely to prove the difference between victory and defeat.
This contest promises to be tense, hard-fought and, in all probability, not overly easy on the eye. However, Ireland have the capacity to come out on top in a close contest allowing the feather duster to be safely stowed away.
Verdict: Ireland, just.