THERE could be a few conspiracy theories flying around about the state of Irish rugby at the moment.
What have we seen over the past few months since Ireland’s brilliant demolition of England? Firstly Declan Kidney, much like his predecessor Eddie O’Sullivan, was given a renewed IRFU contract prior to the biggest rugby event in the world, then we saw Munster’s Tomás O’Leary slip from No1 or No2 in the scrumhalf pecking order to no longer being required. We heard rumors of some players being told they would not be going to New Zealand only to suddenly reappear, and last week we saw Johnny Sexton moved to inside centre? This week we are still left unsure as to who will be the starting out-half against Australia in just a few weeks’ time.
While tomorrow’s crucial matchup against England is being touted as the final warm-up match; things are set to get a lot hotter than just warm, as both teams go after a much needed morale-boosting win before the trip to New Zealand. England will conveniently say that the pressure is firmly on Ireland given that at least they beat Wales on home soil before losing the corresponding match in Cardiff, whereas Ireland, despite a facile win against Connacht, have failed to register a single international win since beating England at the end of the last Six Nations.
To cap it off, Ireland are again missing the talismanic influence of some star players, namely brilliant captain Brian O’Driscoll and their European player of the year, Sean O’Brien. In addition, Ireland will field a team with players like Tommy Bowe, Jerry Flannery, Geordan Murphy, Stephen Ferris and David Wallace all struggling with big match fitness. England, who many people fancy as potential dark horses in New Zealand should they top their group and stay on the better side of the draw, have fielded a seriously strong team including the likes of Samoan-born centre Maau Tuilangi and renowned prop Andrew Sheridan.
Against Wales, England showed little or no creativity in their backline, despite dominating possession and territory, in the end they couldn’t manufacture any real line breaks, especially in the centre where England’s onedimensional philosophy comprised mainly of crash, bang wallop! aka 2003? For Ireland to win this match, they need to move the bigger English pack around the park, get good, quick ruck ball and not allow the visitors to settle – no rocket science there? However that is going to be hard to sustain for 40 minutes let alone 80, given that two of their loose forwards, Wallace and Ferris, will be blowing hard due to lack of game time. Luckily for them England do not really possess a Richie McCaw or David Pocock sort of player, the English backrow is more a collection of lineout prowess, bulk and aggression rather than speed or skill on the loose ball.
With Ronan O’Gara back in at outhalf he will be instructed to do what he does best, put Ireland into good field position with his educated boot. Ireland still need to put greater pressure on the English throw to the lineout which they can do with Ferris’s extra height. They must also chase O’Gara’s kicks aggressively and flat, and not allow the likes of Ben Foden and Chris Ashton to set up English counter-attack play. Ireland also need to have a better policy on their counter-attack ball, by using quick throws to the lineout and getting the ball to the wide open spaces as quickly as they can. Ireland can ill afford to get into an English arm wrestle around the trenches, and too often we have seen the Irish ball returned via the somewhat out of date kick and chase game. Earls (pictured) is given the task of marshalling Tuilagi and, while Earls is a wonderfully aggressive and industrious player, he still lacks body weight, and against France Earls was thrown off the ball like a rag doll at times.
Earls’ asset is getting outside his man, and not being forced to bash at an English midfield that will not yield much. Tomorrow’s game seriously worries me. Ireland are missing some key players and they are carrying too many players just back from injury. In addition, they face a strong and desperate English side determined to eradicate last year’s Six Nations hammering. I think that if Ireland can just hold firm on their set pieces, then they probably have a better second row and a more dynamic ballcarrying backrow.
They also have a good attacking backline but they must play to those strengths and not get embroiled in England’s game. It is absolutely vital that Ireland win tomorrow if they are going to harbour a serious crack at this World Cup. A loss regardless of a clichéd “performance” is just giving everybody a convenient way out. Winning in any sport buoys a team’s confidence, gives them a spring in their step at the next training session and becomes a habit. Ireland need to find that habit tomorrow.