Sunday 17 December 2017

Ireland v England: This will tell us how good we really are

Schmidt reckons England clash will benchmark his side's progress as Ireland look to make it 10 wins in a row with victory over big, powerful, skilful old enemy

The Ireland squad warms up during a training session ahead of the clash with England
The Ireland squad warms up during a training session ahead of the clash with England
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

So, it comes down to this. As the clock ticks towards 5.0 tomorrow, Ireland will know just how far they've come under Joe Schmidt.

The coach is not one for hyperbole but even he couldn't resist giving the visit of England top billing.

Over the course of a year and a half in charge, the New Zealander has turned his team into an elite unit capable of winning in almost any scenario. There are only two teams they have yet to conquer and one of them, their biggest foes, arrive into their backyard with a burgeoning reputation.

"It'd be the biggest win we've had so far, without a doubt," he said. "The position we're in, what we've got to play for, the year that's in it, the players that have come in and out of the squad. . . there's a number of things that it would be great to give that confidence to the players, to know that they're capable of doing it.

"Also, for us, it will be a massive game because we have had unbelievable support in the Aviva. Against the French, that support reached a new volume in recent times. I don't think we've ever quite had it like we had it against New Zealand in November 2013, but I think this will get close to that.

"If we can be in the game, at the death, and get our noses in front, I think it would be just reward for the effort the players have made and just reward for those people who come and support us and provide a degree of inspiration to the players."

Schmidt can often cut an uncomfortable figure in the glare of team announcement press conferences, but yesterday at Carton House he was noticeably relaxed and focused as he dealt calmly with the grumblings over his team's style of play, accusations of kicking the ball too much and even Shaun Edwards provocative comments about the 'choke' tackle in his own inimitable style.

Ultimately, the central storyline this week revolves around the 80 minutes tomorrow afternoon when the Six Nations' last remaining unbeaten sides come together in what will be a furious occasion.

"It's hard not to get excited," Schmidt conceded. "We've been working hard for a long time now - 50 different players in 18 months of work and this gives us an opportunity to maybe culminate in a home victory that would be really special.

"I've been to a few England-Ireland games. The whole occasions was such that you enjoy the festival as well as the game, and we sense that it's building. That can be a distraction and it can be a little nerve-wracking as well, and we hope that the players can maintain their composure and make good decisions in those pressure moments that we know are going to be often and high pressure regularly during the game."

That's what this will come down to ultimately.

Both Ireland and England are well-coached teams packed with talented players. Schmidt often talks about fine margins and those will be determined by the decision makers on the pitch.

In that regard, Ireland have more experience in their locker. Paul O'Connell remains the tournament's elder statesman, while Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton are the best half-back pairing in Europe. Jamie Heaslip is a loss, but Schmidt wants Peter O'Mahony and Sean O'Brien to compensate and help Jordi Murphy through the biggest day of his career.

The change at No 8 means Tommy O'Donnell is promoted to the bench having overcome his concussion, while Eoin Reddan comes in for Isaac Boss.

England, as expected make two changes to their back-three and leave the rest unchanged. Mike Brown's concussion sees Saracens full-back Alex Goode come into the side, while Stuart Lancaster replaces Jonny May with Jack Nowell.

That tactical decision comes in advance of an expected aerial bombardment, with Lancaster speaking again yesterday about Ireland's kicking game.

Despite his insistence that he hasn't read a word of criticism this week, Schmidt came prepared.

"I know we have kicked less than some other teams in the Championship so far so maybe that's a challenge, maybe if people have a look they might find it is our opponents at the weekend," he said.

"We have no doubt that their kicking game is very strong. I think if they have kicked the ball the number of times they have kicked very, very effectively. George Ford, it is a huge strength of his game, as is his passing game. I think he's one of the better passers around, he's done a super job so far since slotting in."

Ford is one of a number of players who didn't play in the corresponding fixture last season when Ireland were pipped at the post and left rueing a host of missed opportunities and poor refereeing calls by the man who takes charge again this weekend, Craig Joubert.

While that game holds some relevance tomorrow, Schmidt says the same again with better accuracy won't do the trick.

"While we were disappointed by a couple of very close opportunities we didn't quite nail and a couple of decisions we didn't get - the hand in the scrum, that sort of thing - those are always going to happen but you have got to be good enough to get your nose in front and get that fine margin," he said.

"Are we good enough now?

"We'll find out on Sunday. We've worked hard this week, we're going to roll up our sleeves on Sunday and try to manufacture enough opportunities that we can get that fine margin to swing in our favour."

That's the key to unlocking this English side who are big, skilful and well drilled.

The forecast of stormy weather won't be greeted warmly by either camp, but two years ago England came to a wet and miserable Dublin for a Sunday kick-off and suffocated Ireland with relish. They'd happily accept the same again.

Their back-row of James Haskell, Chris Robshaw and Billy Vunipola has the capacity to rumble the ball forward and go through phase after phase without giving the ball away, while their pacey outside backs will bide their time and look to exploit a tired defender.


Ireland, meanwhile, will look for parity at the scrum and dominance in the air. They'll hope to get Robbie Henshaw more space than he has been allowed to date and you get the sense that the pair of full-backs in midfield could be put to use in the air.

If England stay true to their word and their back three spend most of the day in the back-field waiting for bombs, Sexton will exploit the space on the edges.

They will need good, clean and quick ball. These are the games that cried out for Sean O'Brien when he was out injured and now he is back he'll want to make his mark.

Schmidt spoke about his box of tricks yesterday and you sense he'll need to reach in there and find something special to unlock the English defence. His bench looks more and more impactful with every passing week, and Cian Healy in particular will be expected to make a mark.

Over the course of his time in charge, Ireland have become a team who have come out on the right side of tight games, who share a total belief in the game-plan and are confident in their own ability to carry it out.

They've won nine in succession, beating Australia, France (twice) and South Africa along the way but, as the World Cup approaches, this is a real chance to lay down a marker about where their intentions lie.

It hasn't always been pretty, but Schmidt's Ireland are a lean, mean results machine who find new ways to win on a weekly basis.

Tomorrow, they face arguably their biggest test yet and, by the time it reaches its conclusion, they, the coach and their fans will know a lot more about where they are in the greater scheme of things.

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