England are now harder to hate – and so they're harder to beat
Tactical precision, not blood and thunder, key to overpowering old enemy
It's a love-hate relationship. When it comes to England, we love to hate them. Very often, in sporting terms, they make it easy. You only need to think of Martin Johnson making the President walk in the muck at Lansdowne Road, Chris Eubank's 'Simply the Best' posturing, or how their media routinely install the English football team as favourites for every major tournament.
Sometimes, it could appear English sporting sides have an intentional desire to be disliked. My first sense of this came as part of a Leinster team prior to a match against Wasps in Twickenham. I was in disbelief looking at the official English plaques put up in the tunnel area, just beside the away changing room.
Along the wall was emblazoned, "England's Greatest Victories". Underneath the signage, past triumphs were commemorated with a scoreline, and heavy wins over Ireland featured regularly. In the final minutes before kick-off, anyone looking for more ammunition against the old imperial power would not have to look much further.
But this has all changed now under Stuart Lancaster. The wall of victory has been dismantled, and in its place, humility instilled by the new coach. The home dressing-room has been redesigned, with each seat engraved with names of respected predecessors. Today, players like Chris Robshaw, Owen Farrell and Joe Launchbury embody the unassuming and respectful culture. This is an English side under Lancaster that is harder to hate, and as a result, harder to overcome.
Humility is a quality that is often heard in sporting circles, but should not be considered simply another cliché. It is hard to overstate its importance. When sports psychologist Enda McNulty first worked with the Leinster squad, he asked the players to come up with words to describe how they would like the team to be perceived.
The first word that Isa Nacewa, arguably Leinster's greatest ever signing, suggested was revealing: "humble". Out of all the possible options, from 'talented' to 'winners', this was the one he singled out and was later echoed by all the other players.
Humility is about much more than how you speak in media interviews or act after scoring a try. It implies a selfless attitude in all aspects and involves a relentless work-rate to improve the team. It's an essential ingredient for the success of any side, and one that both Ireland and England have in large quantities.
Nowhere is this more evident than in terms of discipline. This is an area where Joe Schmidt's side, in particular, have been hugely impressive, conceding just 16 penalties in the opening two games. Only one of those, against Wales, was kickable. This discipline requires players knowing when not to go for the heroic steal or the impossible turnover at the breakdown. As Chris Henry spoke about this week, it's about being disciplined and selfless to trust in your team-mates' defensive abilities to shut the opposition down in the next phase.
Technically, it's also about being extremely accurate around the tackle area, the zone Irish players refer to as 'the golden metre'. Ireland have been clinical in rolling away after a tackle has been made, an infringement referees have been keenly looking out for. Ireland's determination to immediately contribute again after a tackle or a breakdown presents a clear image to referees of a controlled and well-drilled side. In tomorrow's game, which is likely to be decided by one or two penalties, that will be pivotal.
In video meetings, defence coach Les Kiss often used the term, "logs" to refer to the players who would lie motionless on the ground after a ruck or a tackle. His intense scrutiny ensured no one wanted to be the 'log' pinpointed on the screen, taking an extra two seconds to get up.
Irish players have also been noticeable for the manner in which they have sought to stay on their feet when clearing rucks. Using their arms to prop themselves up off the ground after the contact, as well as keeping their heads up looking forward, allows players to avoid conceding the 'sealing off' penalty. When hitting a ruck very close to the ground, this can be hard to do, but Ireland's success was reflected in the fact that they retained a phenomenal 75 out of their 77 rucks against Wales.
Probably with this in mind, the 'Northampton blueprint' has again been cited this week by England as the template for how to beat an Irish side. Wales also referenced it two weeks ago with a view to replicating the Saints' defensive work-rate and breakdown aggression that saw them defeat Leinster in Dublin last December.
The Welsh side completely failed to achieve that but it is hard to imagine that Dylan Hartley, Courtney Lawes and Luther Burrell won't match the hunger and intensity they used to shut down Leinster.
Assistant coach Andy Farrell has also brought a huge line-speed to the English defence, and it is going to be a real challenge for Ireland to get through it. The footwork brilliantly used by the Irish ball carriers such as Jamie Heaslip, Dave Kearney, Andrew Trimble and Peter O'Mahony against Wales will again be crucial.
In attack, Ireland will also likely have more variety off the tail of the line-out. On a number of occasions against Wales, they tried to use peels to launch attacks down Rhys Priestland's channel, but each time Toby Faletau cut it off. However, this week, England's concern about the Irish maul will possibly free up more room for the likes of Cian Healy and O'Mahony to run at Owen Farrell and begin the high-tempo patterns we associate with a Schmidt side.
With both sides certain to bring the required work rate, aggression and humility, this tactical battle could prove to be decisive.