Tuesday 20 February 2018

England will have little to fear in Dublin

Ireland don't have much to build on from this defeat for Saturday's match against old enemy, says Eddie Butler

THere was a time when Ireland played in a cartoon whirl of limbs, scything down anything before them. Simon Geoghegan, all blonde and knees and rampaging, was a talismanic figure. The deeper the game was played in a storm of abandon, the more they were roared on.

Something of the maniacal seems to have gone from their game, not much mourned as long as it disrupted their attempts to develop a game of class and even elegance. Brian O'Driscoll scored his 24th try in the championship and for a time it seemed that Ireland were going to put the splutters of their campaign behind them and mould themselves into shape to face England in Dublin on Saturday.

For 16 smooth minutes the game progressed without a penalty, the two most whistled teams in the Six Nations finally deciding to put good intentions into good practice. For almost a whole quarter this was not a bad match.

Then the penalties began again and the rhythm of the nervous recovery turned to another slump. Gordon D'Arcy and O'Driscoll managed their opposite numbers pretty well, revealing once again that D'Arcy, whose hands were suspect in the first game against Italy and whose missed tackle on Aurelien Rougerie in the second cost Ireland dear, remains a clear example of Ireland's transformation as an organised defensive unit.

The laws have been fine-tuned to make the tacklers pause for thought before recontesting the ball, but it has not stopped O'Driscoll and D'Arcy and Tommy Bowe from being influential at the breakdown. It may yet serve them well against England but it is hardly likely that England are going to ape the Welsh strategy of protecting a lead by hoofing the ball downfield and defending like demons.

In Sean O'Brien, Jamie Heaslip and David Wallace, Ireland have ball runners who may make ground in Dublin. There is no specialist fetcher, no Heinrich Brussow scrabbling around on the floor. Ireland like their back-rowers on their feet, with ball in hand.

The Welsh back row were excellent on the defensive again. Sam Warburton and Dan Lydiate are forming a slick partnership, the ball player and the ball winner. To fall back on the pump and tackle would only be possible if there is an instinctive understanding between the wing forwards who have to get down and dirty.

England will presumably be in a more positive mood. To watch this Wales-Ireland was like watching David Duckham suffering from frostbite on the England wing. Nick Easter, Tom Wood and James Haskell are tall and powerful, better upright than doubled over at the tackle. It's a question now of the small things, which seem to have been gathered together on the Irish and Welsh sides as a lack of confidence. It may be more a lack of precision, accuracy, judgment and wearing the right studs. Wales's feet seem to slide all over the place as much as their instinct is to attack.

England, of course, have found a new confidence that has illuminated their play. They would appear to be on track again, not yet the finished product but bristling with determination and desire. Crashing through the barrier of self-doubt is an England strength.

Might Ireland stop them? Probably not. Home advantage counts for something against England -- which is not the case when Wales host Ireland -- but this was largely hapless. The single tactic seemed to be the little chip over or under the Welsh blitz defence, but if it doesn't pay off it leaves the ball bouncing all around the horribly greasy surface of the Millennium Stadium. It looked like something out of the 1960s, never mind Duckham.

Wales have won three times on the bounce now, and for the first time at home in a calendar year. But they need to win in Paris. Of course, France may be in freefall after defeat in Rome. Wales have to find an alternative to protect, kick and rush. If France are in no mood to respond to their first defeat against Italy, that is, if there is an internal revolt against Marc Lievremont, then anything could happen.

It would be a last round of revolution, which won't come to pass, because England are not going to allow anybody to stand in their way, I imagine. There is always a proviso, but England grow in stature and the rest of European rugby seems to have shrunk.

Perhaps England will opt for a more cautious approach in Dublin as they venture out of fortress Twickenham for the first time since they went to Cardiff in round one. They will probably still win. Ireland gave no indication that they know how to win a big match. Observer

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