Sunday 22 April 2018

Neil Francis: We need a perfect day in the scrum - not another walk on the wild side

Scrum remains a concern but Ireland have game-changing plays in the bag

Seán O’Brien played with frightening intensity against France
Seán O’Brien played with frightening intensity against France
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

When I die and go to heaven and realise that more absolution is required, I think I will go back as one of those pigeons who flutter around the glass ceilings of the Aviva. When God calls tell him I'm out, get him to leave a message. What could be better than watching Ireland play England and crapping all over the committee box in the same afternoon?

Irrespective of the fare, Ireland-England games are never less than absorbing. If the score this afternoon ends at 0-0, you will know that you got every cent's worth of value in 80 minutes worth of recreational violence.

The players kid us when they tell us that these are the matches they want to play in because the pressure is intolerable. Two obstinate, well-matched teams playing in a suffocating vacuum. We kind of get the sense of what it was like for Joseph, Mary and the little donkey. Line speed in modern Test rugby is the one constant, defences are just so disciplined. If you have to think for a millisecond you get hit. There will be no room in today's proceedings and the ball will be an object to chase rather than something to hold.

There are a number of reasons why this will be Ireland's most difficult game. In really tight games as both teams strive for fluency or a toe-hold into the game, quite often the scrum is the phase of the lowest common denominator. If I was a senior player in the English pack, my over-riding concern would be to make the scrum an issue - the biggest issue in the match. This area of the game made a dramatic return to relevance in the last year or so and particularly in the autumn series. Field position and kickable penalties from scrum violations are now a significant part of the game.

I do not agree with what happens at scrum time and I still have to be shown in the rule book where exactly it says that you can be awarded a penalty if you drive your opponent's scrum back three or four metres. Two weeks ago Mike Ross gave away three penalties at scrum time (my count was four). That is unacceptable. Unless you have a goldfish-bowl memory, Joe Marler put Mike Ross through the bacon slicer in both Harlequins games. In the 24-18 loss at the Stoop, Ross conceded two scrum penalties. In the lucky 14-13 return win at the Aviva, he conceded four scrum penalties. You don't have to hold the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics at Cambridge to divine that England might just see an angle here.

Whatever it is that Marler has, he can press all the right buttons on Ross and the mere sight of Ross getting back up from another collapsed scrum shaking his head and talking to Rory Best on the way back from the mark will tell you that any England scrum dominance means that they will have built a little impregnable fortress and no matter what happens around the paddock they can retreat to that sanctuary of certainty. When Matt O'Connor dropped Ross for the final pool game against Wasps, Marty Moore stuck the scrum for Leinster all afternoon with no sanction.

We assume that just because we are at home our scrum will function. I'd said Graham Rowntree will be looking forward to the first scrum today. The question is how many penalties are too much? Ross, whatever he does, must have a perfect day, not a walk on the side.

England, we note, have improved by accident. They will be bringing Manu Tuilagi with them to Dublin; we will know today whether his forceful personality will be required by England at any further stage in the campaign.

Jonathan Joseph and Luther Burrell look like they can read each other's play and sniff opportunity. One of the things that has impressed me about England is their passing. Unlike the French they can actually pass accurately. The fundamentals of putting the ball in front of its intended recipient and doing it at pace is going to cause Ireland trouble. If France had been able to pass accurately Ireland would have been in trouble. The question for this English three-quarter line is can they pass under pressure? It is a lot harder to do it when you have a dry throat and a green blur in your face.

The diminutive George Ford looks a million dollars too - amazing what a backline can do when your outhalf knows how and when to pass.

I do think, though, that England's victory in Cardiff was overstated. That 16-21 result was explainable. Wales didn't score in the second half in Cardiff, which was down to a dowdy and unthinking performance by the Welsh. No Plan B was the cry the next day. England figured Warrenball a long time ago and the fact that there was only five points in it was down more to the bite in the game and what it meant to the Welsh. Ireland scored 30 points against the Welsh in Cardiff in 2013 against pretty much the same team. No big deal.

England should have scored more tries in Cardiff. How Haskell didn't score in the second half will be an entry in 'Ripley's Believe It Or Not'. It will be an area of concern for England - three good try opportunities missed. They were nowhere near as clinical as they needed to be. What was impressive was their line speed and the surety of the tackle. Ireland will not be able to go through them and will have to go around them.

My old mucker Brian Moore called Ireland's centres functionaries and it may be hard to disprove this opinion. Both of Ireland's centres have been irrepressible and unflinching in their duties but neither has looked remotely like getting over the line. It is maybe that the system they play in negates any chances of attacking but today more than any other day would be a good day to break their duck.

Ben Youngs is the barometer of how this English team plays. If he is dictating the tempo of the game that means Ireland's men at the ruck are either failing to stop England runners at or before the gain line, or they are not getting over the ball quickly enough to slow it down. Youngs looks very good sometimes when the quality of the ball presentation at the tackle scene is shit-hot. He is almost a frustrated passenger when he has to go fishing for it.

So here the crucial battle in the key area determines who will win and it is very hard to pick a winner. When Johnny Sexton won man of the match against the French, it was deserved but Seán O'Brien played with frightening intensity. If his performance looked understated, another look on the video confirmed his exemplar personality, another phenomenal performance. Ireland's back-row though looks a little light and a soupcon under-powered. It's a big man's game and England's ball carriers offload really well. Robshaw's offload to Danny Care for the winning try last year in Twickenham was imperious. Ireland will have to do more than chop-tackle England's big back-row and they will also have to be intelligent to cover any trailer runners who shadow the likes of Vunipola. Robshaw and Care know each other's game inside out so hopefully Youngs doesn't have the same understanding.

The question is, will Ireland be rigid and inflexible on the line and if they are will they be nimbler and inches lower on the ground to nick, slow or disrupt ball? England don't get that many forwards into the ruck and so are vulnerable, yet Sam Warburton and company didn't get much change out of them at the breakdown. Let's see how good Ireland can be.

England have made changes in their back three and will have engaged in extensive preparations for all of them to be moved around and drawn up to the line. Ireland showed how clever they could be by drawing France up to the line, by pretending to run the ball only for Sexton to drop back and kick. Mental dexterity and invention will also play a part!

This game could end up a draw but I fancy Ireland to pull one or two game-changing plays out of the bag. It assumes they are competitive and efficient in all areas. As the ad says, all it takes is everything.

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