Tuesday 23 January 2018

Tony Ward: Result will matter more to Lancaster but let's hope warm-up doesn't overheat

Joe Schmidt will be looking for a good performance and no injuries – but all bets are off when it’s Ireland v England
Joe Schmidt will be looking for a good performance and no injuries – but all bets are off when it’s Ireland v England
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

When the original list of World Cup friendlies or, more accurately, warm-up games was made known, Match 4 scared me. And as game day arrives, my feelings haven't changed - in fact my concerns about today's contest have grown. On this side of the Irish Sea, we are revealing no state secret when we say that matches against the 'auld enemy', even in tiddlywinks, matter.

Irrespective of how much we dress it up or look to play it down, England at Twickenham for our national rugby team is not just another game. The friendly moniker preceding it has little relevance.

So whether it is Six Nations, World Cup warm-up or World Cup final, what we can expect is full-on, no-holds-barred physicality. The August phony war is over. Of course it served its purpose and, despite one main casualty in Tommy O'Donnell, we are in far better nick going into Rugby World Cup 2015 than we were in 2007.

Back then we were badly undercooked heading to France and almost paid the ultimate price against Georgia in the Pool phase. That knock to the system rattled Eddie O'Sullivan's squad to its core and made for a shock from which we never fully recovered.

There may still be some ring-rust when we kick it all off against Canada in the Millennium this day fortnight but in broad terms that 2007 lesson has been learnt and the lead-in schedule has served us well


It is my sincere hope that we will be singing the same tune come 4.30 or thereabouts this afternoon. Put yourself in England's place. Here they are in the last blow-out before having to hit the ground running against Fiji in what is unquestionably the Pool of Death this time around.

They are on their home patch before the 'Swing Low' faithful having turned in a pitiful performance save for the final quarter against the French in Paris in their penultimate warm-up game.

Kid yourself not, public and media pressure counts in terms of confidence and morale within a squad, especially in the bubble that is Rugby World Cup. They will not like what they have been reading, seeing and hearing since selling their build-up short in Saint Denis.

They need a boost to flagging morale and I'm not too sure it comes better wrapped than back-to-back Six Nations champions clad in green. We assume the Millennium Trophy will be up for grabs. It matters not a whit.

This is about two squads in search of the same goal and that in the most simple terms is an injury-free performance of substance. The result will then look after itself.

To that end, Stuart Lancaster has named what pretty much amounts to his full-strength 23 and, obviously pending the outcome and performance today, the likely line-up to set it all under way in the opening game to RWC 2015 on Friday week.

And should that fail, he has in Joe Launchbury, Sam Burgess and the Vunipola brothers the type of game-changing impact in reserve to do just that.

Against the Welsh in the opening warm-up we hit cruise control and blew them away. Against the Scots we drifted between hot and cold and then on Saturday last came up against the type of full-court press and suffocating tactics we are likely to encounter again this afternoon.

Warren Gatland harps on about our limited if winning template but, with all due respect, there is precious little tactically, or in terms mindset and talent between Ireland, England and Wales at this point in time.

And lose the run of ourselves, it was just points difference in our favour that saw us squeeze home as champions on Super Six Nations Saturday back in March. Point being - and last Saturday's defeat hammered the message home forcibly - there is no room whatsoever for complacency.

In Joe Schmidt and Les Kiss we have the right men to keep the lid on that particular impostor. I also believe that along with forwards coach Simon Easterby most if not everything is being kept under wraps for the tournament proper.

If not, then based on last Saturday's attacking evidence, and the lack of inventive craft or guile, we are set for a rude awakening in that potential pool decider against the French in Cardiff on October 11.

For Lancaster, Brad Barritt makes a welcome return along with Ben Morgan, Launchbury and Owen Farrell from Six Nations injury.

The England coach is, much like his Ireland counterpart, betwixt and between on his midfield combination. Jonathan Joseph was along with Paul O'Connell the outstanding individual in this year's Six Nations for me. If Barritt and Joseph can click then watch out world. Whether it will be enough to challenge for a Webb Ellis trophy is another argument for another day but from an immediate Irish perspective it could make for a long painful afternoon.

So what of the boys in green? Just like Lancaster, Schmidt has picked what looks as close as is possible to the strongest team in his mind right now. Will it be the same line-up to face the French in the guaranteed Pool decider four games in? For a number of reasons, I doubt it very much.


Rob Kearney in the last line, Simon Zebo on the left wing, Cian Healy at loosehead and Iain Henderson pushing Devin Toner if all were fit and firing look the most obvious possibilities for strengthening. Watch that picture change in the coming weeks. The replacement bench too will have a different, more game-changing focus.

But for now it's about game time and learning as he goes for the head coach, especially in relation to the front-row and his midfield pairing too.

Naturally, he will play it down but right now he cannot be happy with where he is at in the centre and at prop with the big kick-off just around the corner.

The second-row is a bit of a luxury as Toner and Henderson bring different skill sets to the cause, while Chris Henry's inclusion would bring a different dynamic to the back-row which in itself offers a degree of comfort mid-match.

Does winning today matter? Not as much as performing but certainly as a boost to a little bit of flagging morale of late to come away from Twickenham with the home team's scalp would represent some springboard to this World Cup.

Conversely for Lancaster and for England, they dare not lose. Both underperformed against the French and Welsh in penultimate warm-ups so this is redemption day in the scrap for confidence.

Nigel Owens (guaranteed to do the final if short of a Welsh presence) is in control so everything about England v Ireland at Twickenham smacks of the real deal.

In theory it is the final dress rehearsal but in reality it is anything but.

This one has a real edge but hopefully from an Irish perspective is not a 'warm-up' too far.

Ireland to perform but England to prevail.

Irish Independent

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