England on grand slam alert
Johnson's young guns warned about Dublin pitfalls
Published 19/03/2011 | 09:38
Martin Bayfield used to tell a story of his nights on the town with the bruising English pack of the 1990s.
They'd be in some bar and, after going one over the eight, a table or chair might suddenly become displaced amidst a riot of alcoholic haze.
"Sirs," the innkeeper would protest, "we may be forced to call the police." Bayfield was one of five policemen in that English side.
"Surprise!" one of their number would cry. Cue raucous laughter and another round of drinks.
This latest English pack doesn't pose a similar threat of intimidation and 2003 World Cup winner Ben Kay retains enough trepidation, heading into his country's first Grand Slam decider since the 2003 success in Dublin, to make him a tad nervous.
"It was good for England to have that scrappy game against Scotland last week," he says. "They could have come into the game with a false sense of confidence, thinking they could play a free-flowing game every time they wanted to.
"Instead, they had to grind out the victory and got a rigorous test at the breakdown which the likes of John Wells, the specialist in that area, will be looking at and ensuring the boys are better up to the task against Ireland."
English captain Nick Easter focused on the Irish prevalence for holding up players in the tackle to force a maul turnover, in contrast to say, the Scots, for whom John Barclay was a constant menace on the ground.
England's back-row is, however, much better balanced according to former Leicester man Kay.
"They are. And it's a reason why Ireland and Wales haven't clicked. I just think it's confidence; England have it and Wales and Ireland don't have the same levels they had a couple of years ago."
Irish forwards coach Gert Smal wants Ireland to attack at the breakdown, too, now that disciplinary issues seem to have been resolved.
"It's one of the biggest areas you concentrate on," he says. "If you look at England, they counter-rucked a huge amount of possession off the Scottish, so again we have to be accurate in what you are doing.
"We won't get away from all the penalties, but you try not to give silly penalties away, and be accurate and disciplined and defend the way we want to defend. It's not just about defending the breakdown, it's attacking the breakdown. When we go in to attack, we must be accurate and make sure we get good possession."
"England have weaknesses, but they're managing to control them and play to their strengths," offers Kay. "They don't like people going low, they're a team that like to scrummage quite high.
"If Ireland get underneath them this weekend, they've a good shot at gaining parity.
"But the likes of Dan Cole, if everyone scrummages at his level, you're going to be in trouble. He's had a superb championship, he was a stand-out on Sunday. If you just want a pushing battle against him, he'll beat you all day.
"He loses the hit the odd time, but always comes back to keep pushing at you. So Ireland will have to be technically very good, to keep that solidity since Mike Ross came in.
"It's a big area of the game, England picked up a couple of penalties against the Scots there on Sunday.
"It's such a confidence booster to know that you have a chance of getting a penalty every time you scrum down. It's a crucial area."
"England have done really well in the line-out this tournament," says Kay. "Particularly having lost guys who would run that. Tom Croft has been missing, so too Courtney Lawes.
"Louis Deacon has been calling them, he's not the first choice to do so at Leicester, but he's done a fantastic job. It's gone really well. But Paulie and Donncha know English line-outs very well and you've also got a guy coming off the bench (Leo Cullen) who knows Louis Deacon very well indeed.
"There's a chance for Ireland to unsettle England in this area. The weather will play a part. James Haskell is not a tremendous line-out forward, Nick Easter is not athletic but he's got great hands. Tom Wood can jump. They've a lot of guys who can do it. Tom Croft is the key, he can win a lot of ball."
Kay finds it hard to split the sides, but eagerly dismisses comparisons to the Grand Slam shoot-out in '03 -- albeit England's inexperience this time around may arm them against weighty expectations.
"England have to remember, also, the times when they've been in similar positions and not come away with results. But this squad is a lot younger and less experienced than that '03 squad.
"They're not as good as '03 but they're arguably more talented, and they have every chance of becoming a better team than the '03 one. My concern would be that a lot of them are so young that they won't be aware of the pitfalls of coming to Dublin on a day like Saturday.
"They won't appreciate the pressure that goes with having a Grand Slam on the line. That exuberance of youth can stand them in good stead. It will be an atmosphere they'll never forget.
"Key things have gone their way. They had a good summer tour, winning once, then beat Australia in the autumn. They've developed that confidence and it's amazing what an impact that can have on a rugby team.
"The Six Nations is all about momentum. It's unique in that regard. It's not like a league where you can afford to lose games, it's not like the Tri Nations where you play the same teams all the time, lose one and come back.
"It's not even like a cup competition where you're both on an equal footing. Look at Scotland versus England last week. Scotland had no pressure, England had all of it. England have managed to maintain the momentum though.
"It's all about the result. Someone asked Martin Johnson before Scotland whether it mattered how they played. He gave them the famous eyebrow stare. It's not about style. It's about winning. That's all that matters and England, this season, know how to win."
Ben Kay is a commentator for ESPN's exclusive coverage of the Aviva Premiership. ESPN broadcasts rugby Autumn Internationals, Aviva Premiership and French Top 14.