Breakdown key to Ireland's fate
Declan Kidney's men need to be ahead before England unleash cavalry, writes Brendan Fanning
From next season we hope the Six Nations will be launched in a whole new fashion. Gone would be the tired old format of coaches and captains feeding quotes to a great horde of hacks, to be replaced by an altogether more presidential gig. A debate if you like. So just as Obama and Romney went toe to toe in front of a live tv audience, the coaches would have a go off each other on the subject of the Championship, and what their teams will bring to it.
If only this had started last month. Then we could have had Declan Kidney and Stuart Lancaster vying for position on who had gone furthest to satisfy the electorate's number one wish: Change.
The Ireland coach has moved the captaincy, and introduced a new core to the starting team. His opposite number meanwhile has done a root-and-branch job in coming up with a new cultural makeover, on and off the field.
We particularly like the following quote from England loosehead Joe Marler – whose mammy, incidentally, is from Crossmaglen – which illustrates the new order in England. "Guys who are coming in, new to the scene, are being allowed to play their natural game, within the limits, you know, of international rugby. You can't just jouez left, right and centre. But it's an environment that allows boys play their natural game, and a lot of boys like to carry the ball."
Jouez no less. Not a lot of old school props you suspect would lapse into French to describe that heady experience of getting out on the open road. But then very few of them had that pleasure. Marler is more new wave than old school, and jouez actually is a word you here now on training grounds in this part of the world. It's about being allowed to play. And certainly England enjoyed that freedom in Twickenham last weekend.
We saw it best in their critical scores. You could say the first try, from Chris Ashton, was the one that opened the Scots beneath the waterline. The touchdown after the break from Billy Twelvetrees turned it into a gaping hole.
For Ashton's try, England passed the ball 17 times through 10 phases to get over the line. For Twelvetrees', there was less effort required: 13 passes over nine phases. You might ask what the Scots were doing while this pressure was building? Not a lot.
The closest they came to interrupting the flow was in the second sequence, when Big Jim Hamilton toe-poked the ball – a bit old school, that – to a grateful Owen Farrell, a sloppy kiss of life into a move that had all but died. Cheers Jim.
One man who watched England train in Bagshot last week came away with the impression that not only were they clear on what they were doing, but they were very happy and confident about doing it.
Scotland contributed to that state of well-being. If England had a head of steam up after beating the All Blacks in November then running over the top of Scotland has turned them into an express.
Perhaps Scott Johnson and Dean Ryan reckoned that with Farrell at outhalf England would not threaten their gain line too much, so they could apply just one man to the tackle area, fan out, and usher the white shirts into a siding. So with no serious contest at the tackle, and no line speed thereafter, Scotland gave England an extraordinary amount of time and space. Nobody appreciated this more than Ben Youngs.
There is not a lot to choose between himself and Danny Care. Both are keen and quick, and dangerous in open spaces. Both struggle for air when the space is compressed. Youngs has a bit of history with Ireland, as indeed has his rival. Two years ago the Leicester player lost the plot when cornered, and it seemed a good idea thereafter to aggravate him as much as possible.
This doesn't mean compromising your defensive line by charging after him, rather it means making the tackle area a war zone in the first place. And that limits Youngs in the second. This worries England. They get jumpy every time Ireland successfully complete a choke tackle. In recent times they have devoted training time specifically in the run-up to games with Ireland to keeping those airways open.
You may remember the policy adopted in their win in Lansdowne Road six months ago, that warm-up for the World Cup in which they muscled the home team off the park. On the training ground they had identified the areas of greatest danger, such as sending one-out runners into a defensive line containing Ireland's locks, who had become practised in the art of legal asphyxiation. If Australia had read the same notes they wouldn't have suffered so much against Ireland the following month.
England steered the game away from Ireland's best chokers that day, and at the first sign of trouble they either flooded the area with bodies and got it to ground so fast the ball would be saved, or went to ground almost on contact. This is part of the reason why Ben Youngs runs so much from the base of the ruck. If he can get wide of the first couple of defenders – typically big forwards from the choke squad – then it not only opens holes further out, but lessens the chances of being choked for whoever runs into those holes.
He will try and run even off slow ball, to try and inject some momentum into the operation. He got so much fast ball against the Scots however he was away in a hack.
To keep that energy flowing, England's next item on the agenda is how Ireland go about slowing the ball after the tackle. Take it that they broached this topic with referee Jerome Garces in the run-up.
In the preamble to the tournament, when the list of crimes least tolerated was presented to the coaches, clearing the tackle area got top billing. Loiterers, coaches were warned, would get the Taser treatment, and so would those who assist them. South African referee Jaco Peyper must have got an early copy of this for he had zero tolerance of the Pumas' efforts to contest after the tackle against Ireland in November, and it helped to knock whatever stuffing was left in a tired side.
Owen Farrell has averaged 81.4 per cent for Saracens this season, and 83.3 per cent in his Six Nations career. The decisions of Mr Garces around the tackle area will decide who wins today. If he sets off after the home team then England are looking at three in a row over Declan Kidney's side. Sobering them up is the likelihood that they won't repeat last weekend's remarkable stat of just six penalties conceded.
For most fans the second of those defeats, in Twickenham last season, has greater traction because of Ireland's shortage of just that – they couldn't get a grip when Mike Ross went off, having been sliding a bit before he went. Ross succumbed to cramp last weekend. He was in a heap going off, having been up against a once-fine prop forward in Gethin Jenkins who is wasting his time playing little rugby in Toulon. It wasn't the scrums that did for Ross though, it was the massive chore of running and hitting as Ireland worked their way up to a massive 200 tackle count. England will attack him today, knowing that if they can get him off early Ireland will be in real trouble. A bit like Munster in the early days, the bench is not a go-to area for a team whose coach doesn't like going there in any case.
Instead the starting line-up will have to get ahead before England saddle up a posse. You wouldn't say all eight are world-beaters, but neither would you worry if they were giving you a dig-out. And if their number included Mako Vunipola, Dylan Hartley, Courtney Lawes, Danny Care and Manu Tuilagi, then you'd have a clear advantage over Ireland's options in the same area.
How the home team cope in that first hour then will shape their day. There has been a lot of talk over the last week about Ireland's fatigue factor. There are two types of tiredness: immediate and cumulative. Clearly it's a bit early for the latter, which kicks in towards the end of a campaign. As for the former, the chemical changes that take place in the body as a result of being bashed around return to normal after 72 hours.
And it's the bashing that's at the root of this, the lopsided stat of Ireland's 200 tackles made against Wales versus England's handy 82 against Scotland. Eight days after the event however, and mentally it was a bonus to have the players back home on the night of the game, it shouldn't be the difference today.
Ireland don't have to manage the same intensity again next week. They can rest then. Today is their sole concern: 80 minutes of X-rated physicality at the breakdown, and then to isolate Alex Goode who, for all his skills, is flakey in the tackle and in the air, at every opportunity.
If Kidney's team can suck the life out of England, they are in business. But if the away team are still kicking when the next wave arrives, then Ireland will struggle to stay afloat. In which case Stuart Lancaster can straighten his tie, check his autocue, and deliver his next speech on the merits of change.