Thursday 14 December 2017

Eddie O'Sullivan: Ireland must box clever to avoid knockout blow

Eddie O'Sullivan

Martin Johnson never picked a fight he didn't back himself to win and, right now, his personality is written all over the England team. They come to Dublin with heads high and chests out on a Grand Slam mission their public will see as a coronation in waiting.

Such is the way with England. A succession of victories tends to ratchet up expectation and, in World Cup year especially, the 'Swing Low, Sweet Chariot' brigade gets a little giddy.

Johnson is probably best remembered here for that famous red carpet stand-off at Lansdowne Road before the 2003 meeting, a game where England claimed their last Slam. Looking back, there was a slight pantomime air to his refusal to take his team to their allotted place for the official Presidential greeting. Yet, his obstinacy told you everything about his mindset for a game England could not afford to lose.

After four successive falls at the final Grand Slam fence under Clive Woodward, that team would never have been forgiven had they not closed the deal in Dublin. People accused Johnson afterwards of bad manners, but pre-match etiquette would have been pretty low on his list of priorities that day.

Maybe that was his greatness as a player. He wouldn't have given a damn about the preliminaries. Johnson pursued victory with the stark focus of a shark closing in on a family of seals.

And, of course, England took the momentum of that '03 Slam to the subsequent World Cup where they would become the northern hemisphere's first (and so far only) winners of the William Webb Ellis trophy.

Yet, remarkably, they have not won a Six Nations game in Dublin since. Ireland won four on the bounce against them after that '03 loss and, though the 42-6 score might suggest otherwise, we could have won that game too.

As a team, we were still finding our feet. We had the right game plan to undo England, but just maybe weren't polished enough to execute it. That said, the game was still in the hopper with 20 minutes remaining, only for us to run out of steam and cough up 26 unanswered points in the remainder.

After that, we did not lose another game to England until my final one as coach at the end of the 2008 Six Nations.

So, for all the hype about Johnson's team now blowing up such a gale in England, I'd hazard a guess that Dublin is the last place they'd have chosen to come to on a Grand Slam assignment.

They've clearly been the best team in what has been an average Six Nations. But there's the rub. It has been so profoundly average that England, even with figures of four from four, look an eminently beatable team.

They're cut from the same cloth as their coach and former captain. Their game is based, first and foremost, on physical domination. Once they establish that foothold -- then, and only then, do they get down to the business of passing and offloads.

This is sensible, pragmatic rugby. And it is serving them pretty well.

That said, they did lose a couple of games in the autumn and I believe those November Internationals were a good indicator of where England currently stand. Against New Zealand, they performed very well, but lost to the Kiwis' superior skill and nous.


They demolished Australia through sheer physical power then, naively, went toe-to-toe with South Africa. Now, if you are ever going to beat the Springboks, it's not going to be a bare-knuckle brawl. England tried it.

And that utterly ordinary South African team, beaten by Scotland and let off the hook by Ireland, did a number on England.

The key was that they would happily have fronted up against England all day. Can Ireland do something similar?

They can contain the English physically, but they need to be smart in how they go about it. England, we know, will play route-one rugby, so Ireland's tackling must be as physical as it has ever been. And, tackles made, they should ignore trying to turn over the ball, unless it is served up on a silver salver.

Instead, they should fight their way over the ensuing ruck ball and take up the space England need to create quick possession. By slowing down the speed of that ruck ball, Ireland's defensive line will be in better shape to win the next collision.

Also, by not consistently trying to turn over possession, Ireland will reduce the risks of being penalised for not releasing the tackled player. This has been the bane of their lives up to last Saturday's game in Cardiff.

Ireland's concession of eight penalties against the Welsh was an improvement, but hardly cause for shouting from the rooftops. Any complacency there will be severely punished by England.

Ireland need to be smart in possession today, because playing these big, physical teams is a bit like being a middleweight boxer in a heavyweight bout. You have to bob and weave, duck and dive to keep your opponent off balance.

In Brian O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy, we have the right men for that job. Mike Tindall is a very good centre, but he is an inside-centre. If Tindall is the best 13 in England we must have an advantage in that department.

Now that Tindall misses the game through injury and is replaced by Matt Banahan the problem for England is even more acute. Banahan has played most of his rugby on the wing for Bath and will not be at all comfortable defending the 13 channel.

Along with that, Shontayne Hape is strong on the ball, but his defensive frailties have already been exposed on a few occasions. Not least against Wales when Jonathan Davies burned him on the outside to score in the first game of the Championship. This is the most obvious weakness in the England line-up.

I expect Ireland's set-piece to hold their own today. Mike Ross, bizarrely surplus to requirements until a few weeks ago, has suddenly assumed the kind of national importance John Hayes bore so manfully for a decade. The line-out functioned well in Cardiff and there's no reason to believe it will be any different this afternoon.

So Ireland will get chances to run at England, they just need to pick the right time and place. So, it comes as a surprise that Ronan O'Gara will not pull the strings today. His substitution in Cardiff changed the game and did nothing for Jonathan Sexton's confidence. In the space of a few weeks, Sexton has gone from being the starting out-half to second choice and back to starting again.

He is somebody under palpable pressure to prove himself again. Given the threadbare confidence of the team, that's not a good scenario.

A priority today is to cut down the errors. Last weekend was the worst it has been for the Championship and that's just not good enough.

The plan today is simple, but not easily executed. Win the collisions and slow the ruck ball without giving away penalties. In possession, vary the strike point to attack where England are weakest. Above all, be patient. And don't be bullied on the carpet.

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