England ready for aerial battle
Farrell hoping Lancaster’s men are not caught out by Sexton’s bombardment, writes Ruaidhri O’Connor
By the sounds of things the team of masseurs and masseuses at England’s team base outside London have been working overtime on the neck muscles this week, given all the time the players have spent peering up to the sky, waiting for the high ball to drop.
Stuart Lancaster’s team know that Johnny Sexton is likely to test out the visiting back three on Sunday.
Under Joe Schmidt, Ireland regularly kick more than their opponents and Conor Murray and his half-back partner Sexton are expected to make the ball ‘contestable’ when it drops back down to ground level.
The expected tactic has already brought about one change in the English line-up with Jonny May sacrificed for Jack Nowell’s safer pair of hands, while Mike Brown’s continued concussion problems mean Alex Goode will start at full-back and he’s another with a good reputation under the dropping ball. Bath full-back Anthony Watson makes up the back-three on the right wing, another who can handle a Garryowen.
There have been plenty of occasions when an otherwise excellent England team would cross the Irish Sea with only their dodgy full-back offering Ireland an opening, but that does not sound like it will be the case this time around.
“They certainly utilise that part of the game a lot and they are dangerous,” defence coach Andy Farrell said yesterday. “They know how to manipulate people but it’s something we’ve been working very hard on, particularly last week. That part of the game last year at Twickenham was super important to us and it will be again this weekend. We will have a bit more focus.
“With the Gaelic football background, Tommy Bowe and Rob Kearney are exceptional in the air; they try a few different tactics where the full-back chases box-kicks from wings just because he is so good in the air. We’ve got to make sure we put pressure on their kicking game – the key thing is catching it.
“Ireland are smart with it, how they manipulate you. It ain’t just kick and hope. They have a good plan. The angle will probably change and we’ve got to be able to adjust. The guys know it is a super-important part of the game”
It is clear that Schmidt holds England in high regard and the feeling is mutual. The tournament leaders have done their homework at Pennyhill Park this week and are not afraid to praise the Irish team either.
“They are a very clever side,” Farrell said.
“They kick the ball a lot and the reason that teams try and manipulate you to kick the ball a lot is to get the ball back on their terms so they can counter-attack well.
“They are dangerous on the counter with quick taps, etc. from set piece they are extremely well mapped out so there will be a few tricks up their sleeve they will try and score tries off. We need to have a plan against that.
“We know that Paulie (O’Connell) pulls the strings on the emotional side of the game. He’ll have them in a great place. I read his comments straight after the France game – that England are going to be a greater threat to them and they need to be better.
“So the psychology started from minute one, and that is how he’ll be driving his team. We’ll be fine as far as that is concerned.
“We want to start with all guns blazing and get a foot-hold in the game as soon as possible, but there is another side who will have a say in that and they will be talking about doing exactly the same.
“We’ve got to weigh it up and get stuck in early or if the game is going for them, we can’t lose our heads because the worrying thing is that if you come out of the blocks with all guns blazing but you lose your heads, you could be six points behind through ill-discipline.”
Farrell was on the other side of the white-line back in 2007 on that famous Croke Park evening when Ireland inflicted their heaviest winning margin on their old rivals.
It’s an experience he won’t forget easily, but he feels his team have the experience to handle the Aviva Stadium atmosphere this Sunday.
“There are lessons that we’ve learned as a group in the last three years, through the ups and downs along the way,” he explained.
“Against the best, being in cauldrons like Cardiff a couple of years ago and going to Dublin, or Scotland in Murrayfield – they are all experiences which have galvanised us into a side who are more composed and relaxed in pressure situations.
“Looking back to that game at Croke Park, they just hit the ground running and played how we knew they were going to play. That is what Munster have done for absolutely years.
“It was a special occasion for them that year, but we are a lot more experienced and composed in knowing how to deal with those situations now.”