Thursday 5 December 2019

Tony Ward: We are more Jack Charlton's Ireland than Stoke City

Relentless intensity is the order of the day - but Van der Flier and McCloskey call-ups hint at more fluid style

Jack Charlton waves to the crowd after his side were knocked out by Italy. World Cup Quarter-Final, Italy v Rep of Ireland, Olympic Stadium, Rome. Picture Credit: Ray McManus/SPORTSFILE.
Jack Charlton waves to the crowd after his side were knocked out by Italy. World Cup Quarter-Final, Italy v Rep of Ireland, Olympic Stadium, Rome. Picture Credit: Ray McManus/SPORTSFILE.
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Sticks and stones and all that. So Eddie Jones sees us as the Stoke City of international rugby. He's fully entitled to his opinion, although you could hardly say that his charges play like an oval-ball Barcelona.

The new England head coach is of course trying to elicit a response in the hope that it might see Ireland deviate from the tried and trusted formula that has served Joe Schmidt pretty well since taking control.

I am not alone in saying I don't like the way Ireland play, but I do get it. We are a limited squad with much more meagre resources than the English or French, so we cut the cloth to measure. It is called sensible coaching, and Schmidt showed in his time at Leinster that he can cut it any way.

Jones is stirring it, although the Potters analogy is a little harsh. We are if anything a replica of the Ireland soccer team of the Jack Charlton 'put 'em under pressure' era.

Our relatively successful formula is based on a relentless intensity, particularly at the breakdown.

We do kick a lot but have definitely pared that back and varied it more, while also showing definite signs of an intent (spoilt by the incessant rain in Paris) to move the point of attack. It's small steps but we'll buy that.

Ireland's Stuart McCloskey. Photo: Gareth Fuller/PA
Ireland's Stuart McCloskey. Photo: Gareth Fuller/PA

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I like Jones as a coach and his introduction to Six Nations rugby is a breath of fresh air. Certainly Warren Gatland now has a heavyweight rival when it comes to stirring it up pre-match.

Will it influence Ireland's approach today? Not one iota, and nor should it. I genuinely believe there are green shoots of measured change if given the conditions and quality of possession.

We are still limited when compared to the dormant quality from nine to 15 and beyond in white but if the will is there - and I believe it is - then hope springs eternal.

Granted the contest was well over when Jonathan Joseph and his England colleagues cut loose in Rome but our defensive alarm bells should be ringing from the off this afternoon.

This is England's first game at Twickenham since the World Cup disaster against Australia in October.

There are ghosts to be exorcised and what better way from an English perspective than against the reigning back-to-back Six Nations champions.

So what can we expect?

Following wins in Edinburgh and Rome, momentum and confidence is growing in the England camp.

Jones is sensibly shifting players around and exercising options in most every sector of the team. He is dangling the carrot and keeping them hungry but he is also blessed with an abundance of talent.

The trick is in managing expectations and time allocation for what is now very much a 23-man operation.

With Maro Itoje making his first start coming into the second-row in place of Courtney Lawes - who had been dropped altogether but replaces the injured Joe Launchbury on the bench - only the 'boilerhouse' could be described as inexperienced, given that Itoje's Saracens clubmate George Kruis has only 12 caps.

And England's replacements are all capable of making a serious impact. Expect them all to play a part.

As for Ireland, it is a line-up that excites because of the introduction of new caps Stuart McCloskey and Josh van der Flier from the off, and with Ultan Dillane set to make his debut off the bench.

Both new caps are enforced changes, brought about through injuries to Sean O'Brien and Jared Payne. There is no doubt O'Brien and Payne would have been first up selections.

Blooding any new player is a gamble for the simple reason that international rugby is played at a speed and level of intensity they have never experienced.

Of course, there is only one way to find out if they are capable of handling the step up.

It has been a circuitous route to McCloskey's first cap, whereas for Van der Flier it has been a little more direct.

One thing that is for certain and that both deserve their call-ups, based on form, as does Dillane.

I was slightly surprised at the selection of van der Flier ahead of Tommy O'Donnell but clearly Schmidt and Simon Easterby have spotted something in training that points to the former Wesley College schoolboy for this one.

Logically it would indicate a team looking to play a much more fluid game with the new cap well capable of outpacing Chris Robshaw and James Haskell to the breakdown.

Expect to see McCloskey take it up to the English midfield a la Jamie Roberts, with his fellow new cap on his inside shoulder.

But McCloskey is not just the one trick pony his powerful physique might suggest. He is well capable of the delicate offload, whether to Robbie Henshaw on his outside or Van der Flier one pass in.

Irrespective of how it has come about, it is a selection that excites and adds enormously to an occasion that is always special regardless.

I get what Eddie Jones is implying when he suggests "everyone hates the English". Hate is not the appropriate word but even in these ultra-professional times wearing green against white is special.

There is a desire to trample the red rose and derail the chariot over and above the ordinary.

Same now as ever it was, so forgive me if I relate a little story I have used in this context - I think it's as relevant today as it was back at that team meeting in Kensington when Stewart McKinney uttered his most appropriate words.

John Moloney as captain was concluding a measured meeting at the end of which you could hear a pin drop such, was the level of concentration. Before breaking he asked if anyone had anything to add.

There was a long silence before McKinney piped up in his soft northern lilt: "Aye, I have John - these guys think we're muck-savages living in caves, down from the hills set loose for the day. . ." another loaded silence followed. With everyone now transfixed to Stewarty. . . "let's not disappoint."

It may have been a different era when different standards applied but the overall principle still holds. Green ripping into white from the off is a given.

It is imperative we hit the ground running and whatever it takes to rattle the English cage we do just that.

I still suspect they may have too much fire power at this point in time but we'll not rule out the improbable.

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