Sunday 25 September 2016

Exploiting Ford and ruling the air are keys for Ireland

The game-plan

Published 25/02/2016 | 02:30

England's George Ford during training. Photo: Henry Browne / Action Images via Reuters
England's George Ford during training. Photo: Henry Browne / Action Images via Reuters

For the first time during Joe Schmidt's reign, Ireland will play a Six Nations game where the title is not on the line.

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Granted, the maths still give the men in green an outside shot of an unprecedented three-in-a-row, but the reality of having one point from a possible four is that the Championship is gone.

So, the team that have claimed the trophy in the last two seasons can go into party-pooping mode and you can be sure that they would take great pleasure in ruining Eddie Jones' coronation as the new king of England.

Everything has run smoothly for the Australian since he took over the ruins of Stuart Lancaster's regime but even he has accepted that his side are in for a step up in class.

Ireland may be stripped of a host of key leaders, look underpowered and are struggling to finish their chances, but they do have one of the smartest coaches on the circuit and the best out-half in the tournament.

With the pressure off and injury forcing him into a new-look team, Schmidt can perhaps loosen the leash against a side returning to their home ground for the first time since their World Cup humiliation.

Nobody is giving Ireland a chance, but when there's Schmidt, there's a way.

Rule the air

Ireland must feel like they've been under siege from verbal grenades all this week, but it will be nothing like the aerial assault which Eddie Jones is, undoubtedly, planning for the Twickenham cauldron.

England's new coach barely stopped short of accusing Joe Schmidt of crimes against rugby, producing inflated kicking statistics to back up his case.

The IRFU have been quick to point out that the Six Nations leaders have, in fact, topped the kicking charts this season and although there is scope for Jones to mix up his midfield this weekend it seems unlikely that the Australian will break up the axis of George Ford and Owen Farrell just yet.

Under Jones, England kick away two out of every five balls they get and are confident that their excellent back three of Mike Brown, Anthony Watson and Jack Nowell can reclaim the contestable and put their opponents on the back-foot.

It is a tactic that is recognisable to Ireland who may look to counter-attack more frequently rather than put boot to ball.

Rob Kearney, Andrew Trimble and Keith Earls are all more than capable of mixing it in the air and, if they can dominate, then they'll deprive England of field position. If they can isolate the lumbering England forwards when chasing back, then they can find holes.

Target Ford

George Ford is enduring a typically difficult second season and Ireland will look to pressurise the young Bath out-half at every opportunity, with and without the ball.

When in possession, the 22-year-old is a creator-in-chief with a gorgeous passing game but his accuracy has been off and he has been struggling under pressure. Without it, he is a defensive liability who must be protected.

Andy Farrell may have no official role in Ireland's camp this week and the IRFU are keen to distance themselves from talk of any contact with the team's incoming defence coach, but the former rugby league star saw enough defensive weakness in England's No 10 to push for him to be dropped during the ill-fated World Cup campaign and it's unlikely that Schmidt is unaware of those deficiencies.

England will look to hide their fly-half, it's Ireland's job to find him.

Breakdown ferocity

Perhaps it was the six-day turnaround combined with the ball in play time against Wales at the Aviva Stadium but Ireland's intensity levels and accuracy dropped hugely against France and they need to put everything into this one.

The infusion of youth that will come with the expected inclusion of Josh van der Flier and Stuart McCloskey, plus the energy that Keith Earls brings on the wing, will help and Schmidt will know that only a dominant breakdown performance will suffice to beat England.

So far, Jones' side have been unspectacular at the ruck and his failure to find an out-and-out No 7 could backfire.

Expect to see Van der Flier first to everything and Ireland hurling themselves at every breakdown.

If they can secure quick ball for Sexton and slow down England's, then they'll have a chance.

Winning the space will be key to setting the white defensive line back, while slowing down the home side's ball will allow Ireland organise their wide defence where England can hurt them.

All of Ireland's greatest wins under Schmidt have been predicated on the ferocious intensity they've brought to the contact zone and against a brutally big English pack they'll need to put their bodies on the line again.

Irish Independent

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