Tony Ward: Gain-line supremacy will be crucial in a game of inches
Published 22/02/2014 | 02:30
The Six Nations champions will not be crowned this weekend, but we are unquestionably facing into the most pivotal phase of the competition to date.
This afternoon's collision in Twickenham is huge, as two coaches I have massive respect for – Joe Schmidt and Stuart Lancaster – go head to head in a mouthwatering contest.
Our record at Twickenham since the turn of the millennium has been pretty good, with wins on Billy Williams' old cabbage patch in 2004, 2006 and 2010.
That's three wins from our last five visits there. Conversely, we suffered hammerings in 2000 (leaking 50 points), 2002, 2008 and 2012.
The three we won were all single-score games, so there is a trend. Either we halt the chariot in its tracks and win narrowly, or else we lose our way and get milled.
Whatever today's outcome, it is difficult to see Schmidt's men suffering a humiliation.
That said, recent history is something we must be acutely aware of. Any English team on the front foot on their home patch is capable of cutting loose and hammering that advantage home mercilessly.
After such a hugely encouraging start under Schmidt, I expect Ireland to at least push England to the limit. Barring some unforeseen mid-match crisis, I can not see any team prepared by the new head coach being on the receiving end of an annihilation. We may win narrowly, but we won't lose heavily.
There are so many imponderables surrounding today's game.
Can England boss the gain line as they have done so effectively in both their matches to date? Losing to the French when dominating position and possession in Paris can be attributed to naivete at this point in this emerging squad's development.
There is no doubt you learn so much more from losing than winning and I suspect that will be very much the case for Lancaster's England now.
They possess big, powerful and dynamic ball-carriers throughout the side but particularly where it matters most – in the forward pack.
In modern-day rugby the battle for gain-line supremacy is one of inches, but when forwards of the ball-carrying ability of Billy Vunipola, Courtney Lawes, Dylan Hartley, Ben Morgan et al break from the fringe of a scrum, ruck or maul, they do so with a force that not alone breaks the gain line but takes the forward momentum way beyond that.
Rugby becomes a very simple game to play after that. In a game of territory, forward momentum is everything.
To that end it is imperative Ireland do to England what the Welsh did to us at the 2011 World Cup.
Cutting carriers at source is central to survival this afternoon. Do that and we are in with a real chance of making it four wins from six in south west London.
Our scrum is strong, our replacement strength significant, our line-out was imperious against the Welsh – and by extension John Plumtree's work at the maul has brought our use of the touchline (by both halves) much more into play.
Our line-speed is above average, with Brian O'Driscoll's ability to operate the shooter central to our comfort without the ball.
The Les Kiss choke tackle is still our trademark and difficult to avoid when wrapped in an upright position by the initial tackle. Johnny Sexton is particularly adept at laying this foundation.
Both wings are comfortable with the ball in the air irrespective of whether it is Sexton or Owen Farrell putting it there. Dave Kearney and Andrew Trimble have been outstanding.
In individual terms there are battles all over the pitch: Hartley v Rory Best; Tom Wood v Peter O'Mahony; Vunipola v Jamie Heaslip; Sexton and Conor Murray in a battle of wits and nerve with Farrell and the brilliant Danny Care.
This is one of the great games and great occasions in world rugby.
Quite how England, and the scrum in particular, operate in the absence of first-choice tighthead Dan Cole we will find out today.
It is a mouthwatering prospect set to be added to by a referee in Craig Joubert who likes to free the ball up and penalises accordingly.
Just as the visit of the Welsh brought a sense of anticipation to the Aviva, so too will this game draw a unique and special atmosphere to Twickenham.
It's going to be a thriller. Bring it on.
The Ward verdict
Despite all the understandable euphoria, I am going to be a killjoy for the simple reason I believe the English – despite the result in Paris – to be the most complete unit when it comes to playing suffocation rugby at this point in time.
Controlling the tempo is essential if we are to turn evidence on its head.
Central to that will be moving another typically big English juggernaut about, so Schmidt's game plan will again make for fascinating viewing.
To beat England, we need the best of that New Zealand game in the autumn added to the near complete Welsh undoing in Dublin.
That and halting fringe runners at source is the key to success, and allowing that dream BOD ending to continue a while longer yet.
This one should go down to the wire, but it seems a hurdle that little bit too high.
Take England by six
Even triumph in Rome won't hide glaring Scottish problems
Before what should be a titanic Twickenham tussle, we have the battle of the Wooden Spoon in Rome.
By the law of averages, the Scots have to produce a half-decent showing at some stage.
They have the bulk to match the Italians where the Azzurri are strongest, but do they have the mental resilience required?
They were so poor against the English that you wonder how a winning turnaround is possible.
The Italians were good despite losing in Cardiff and equally so despite an even heavier points difference in Paris.
The Scots will surely improve on their two showings to date but this game is made for an emphatic Italian statement.
Having experienced the move to the Stadio Olimpico (when Ireland bit the dust there last March) up close and personal, it is a venue that lends itself to the further development of Italian rugby.
Wounded pride will surely ensure a spirited Scottish performance under beleaguered coach Scott Johnson.
And yet, all evidence points to it getting even worse before it gets any better.
Even a face-saving win in Rome would do no more than paper over the glaring cracks in Scottish rugby – from grassroots up.
The Ward verdict
The Italians to take up where they left off in their last Six Nations game at this magnificent Coliseum-like venue.
The Scots can only improve on what we have witnessed to date and the fact they travel to Rome as the underdogs to face a team also with two losses from two tells you everything.
If the Italians can handle that tag of favouritism then they could well get back to winning ways with a bit to spare.
Take Italy by 10