Thursday 27 June 2019

Brendan Fanning: 'England more motivated than ever but Ireland should get job done'

Joe Schmidt's men will be steeling themselves for a bullish old enemy, writes Brendan Fanning

Ireland's Johnny Sexton. Photo: Sportsfile
Ireland's Johnny Sexton. Photo: Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

In the lead-up to the quarter-final of the Heineken Cup in 2005, Leinster captain Reggie Corrigan was doing a radio interview with a man whose first love would not be rugby. Looking at the numbers from the pool phase, the interviewer opened with: "Well Reggie, Leinster qualified in first place and Leicester in eighth as a runner-up, so you'll be very warm favourites for this?"

Corrigan managed to stifle the groan, but only just. When the mist had cleared over the quarter-final match-ups the Tigers, receiving the news on the way home from having put 62 points on Calvisano, let out a big cheer. Going to Dublin didn't seem to fill them with foreboding.

Last week we overheard someone lucky enough to have a match ticket for Saturday in Lansdowne Road computing that first versus fifth, which is how Ireland and England finished last season's Six Nations, left a lot of daylight between teams.

Mercifully, Joe Schmidt, who has a PhD in inflating for public consumption the quality of Ireland's opponents - any opponents - was not in the vicinity. Otherwise the most successful coach in these parts would have elevated the bagman in the England squad to Olympic standard in logistics.

Ireland and England in the first week seems almost wasteful in the circumstances. With the added attraction that comes with a Six Nations in a World Cup season, the choreographers would have wanted a repeat of last year's tournament, which wasn't exactly a black-ball finish, but was riveting on the last day nonetheless. On an afternoon cold enough to pain your face, Ireland won a cracking contest where Jacob Stockdale sealed his Player of the Tournament award, and Schmidt reinforced his reputation as a master of moving stuff from training ground to pitch with awesome effect.

For Eddie Jones, that game concluded a poor campaign with their third defeat in a row. In 2017, Ireland had put the mockers on his run of 17 wins since taking over from Stuart Lancaster - eh, no-one credits the Leinster coach for facilitating 18 wins by getting the ball rolling against Uruguay in the World Cup - so confidence wasn't high in the home camp coming into that game. They seem bullish enough now though.

It's worth bearing in mind that Ireland and England have shared the last five Championship titles between them, 3-2 in Ireland's favour. England were back-to-back champions in 2016 and 2017, the first of them a Grand Slam. So they have lots of positive stuff in the memory bank. But it's the 'worst return in 35 years' stat that came with last season's fifth-place finish that is driving them now.

Since that campaign they went to South Africa and lost the series, came home and opened the November set of games against the same opposition. Their November stats of three wins from four looks a whole lot better than two from four, which would have been the case had Owen Farrell, against the Springboks, not got away with a tackle on the last play that was neither penalised nor carded.

It was a huge boost to England, a turning point that propelled them into a big performance against New Zealand - a game they should have won, but didn't - followed by Japan, where it needed a powerful fourth quarter to win a game that saw the away side two tries up after half an hour.

So Jones really doesn't know where he's at with this side. Their injury picture, he reckons, is the best it's been since 2016, and for their warm-weather spin in Portugal last week they brought only those who would be available to face Ireland. Still, the up-and-down nature of their path to this Championship means there isn't a baseline for them.

With Ireland, there is a point on the scale below which it is not acceptable to drop.

So not only do you get stats like 18 wins from the last 19 games but the one defeat in that sequence - Brisbane last summer - was by nine points, in a very competitive game where Schmidt tinkered with his selection with a view to a longer-term benefit. Then they came back and won the second and third Tests.

Moreover, Ireland will bring the vast bulk of their first-choice players like Johnny Sexton to the table, which will probably see a dozen of those who featured in Twickenham going to the start line on Saturday. For a variety of reasons England will have seven or eight changes.

And unlike that Leinster game back in 2005, the higher-ranked team will prevail.

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