Tuesday 24 October 2017

George Hook: Ireland's guile and aerial dominance can make Martin Corry eat his words

Former England captain's view of Irish game hopelessly out of touch - but scrum a worry

Simon Zebo, Ireland, contests a high ball with Israel Folau, Australia
Simon Zebo, Ireland, contests a high ball with Israel Folau, Australia
George Hook

George Hook

It was interesting to hear Martin Corry's thoughts on the Ireland-England match-up in a radio interview this week. Corry is almost six years out of the professional game, yet his philosophy on what he expects from Ireland at the Aviva tomorrow doesn't appear to have changed at all since his last international match in 2009.

The former England captain suggested that Ireland would come roaring out of the blocks in the opening 15 minutes tomorrow and throw hell and its mother against the visitors.

If England can ride that initial onslaught, Corry predicted, they will settle into a rhythm and set about picking Ireland apart.

Corry's assertions are badly out of kilter with the modern face of Irish rugby - they belong to an era that existed long before the grip of professionalism took hold in this country.

It is funny to think that a player with over 60 international caps could be so out of touch with the modern game. His apparent belief that Ireland still operates under the mantra of a blind cavalry charge into the mist is about as relevant as saying France still hold skill and flair to the forefront of their game.

Ireland in 2015 bare no resemblance to their former amateur selves. The days of approaching games with tactical naivety and burnt-out passion are long gone. This unit is far more complex.

Stuart Lancaster's relief at the final whistle in Twickenham last year told its own story. Victory for either side in London that day would have been equally justified. That England came out on top was as much to do with the small bounces of fortune that went their way over the course of the 80 minutes as anything else. Will fortune favour the Irish tomorrow?

England, to their credit, have completely transformed under the guidance of Lancaster. The current crop of players are vastly removed from the infantile jokers that dishonoured the national jersey and disrespected the head coach of the previous era.

How ironic and shameful that one of international rugby's greatest ever captains and leaders could be reduced to defending the childish antics of a bunch of spoilt, lazy professionals. It was a miracle that Martin Johnson lasted as long as he did.

Today, a very different hand guides this England squad.

Dwarf-tossing

Where Johnson presided over a litany of puerile embarrassments during his tenure - when stories of dwarf tossing, lap-dancing and other sordid stories regularly dominated the news headlines - now Lancaster has instilled a quiet, humble confidence among his charges.

In the space of three years, Lancaster has managed to rid England of its worst habits and replaced the cockiness and arrogance of old with something far more dangerous and potent.

It is this new-found humility and respect for the Irish game that might hold the key to an England victory tomorrow.

The loss of Mike Brown from the England starting team is enormous; his aerial battle with Rob Kearney last year was worth the entrance fee alone and the Harlequins full-back had a massive influence on the outcome of the game.

Alex Goode offers nothing like the threat of his predecessor from open play and with Brown out of the equation, England are considerably less potent in attack.

Similarly, Ireland must cope without Jamie Heaslip in the back-row and one wonders if Jordi Murphy has the necessary physical strength to deal with three giants in James Haskell, Chris Robshaw and Billy Vunipola.

Murphy is a strong young man. He will need every ounce of his powers just to gain parity with the England back-row tomorrow.

Ireland's greatest advantage comes in the half-backs. Jonathan Sexton and Conor Murray have both the experience and skill to better their opposite numbers.

As Sexton demonstrated against France last time out, Ireland are an immeasurably better side with him at the helm. I fully expect Sexton and Murray to launch high balls in on top of the England back three.

As it stands, there isn't a side in world rugby that can match Ireland's aerial ability, and if the garryowens come thick and fast on top of Goode, Anthony Watson and the inexperienced Jack Nowell, Ireland should be able to capitalise with quick ball behind the England gain-line.

Against that advantage, the scrum is a serous concern. Last December, Mike Ross spent back-to-back European games being dismantled by Harlequins loose-head Joe Marler. One would hope that the 34-year-old has learned a few lessons from those encounters, because if he hasn't, Ireland will struggle to win their own ball.

Cian Healy's impressive record against Dan Cole over the years makes his exclusion difficult to understand. The Leinster loose-head came through 40 minutes against Zebre in the Pro12 last weekend, and while his clubmate Jack McGrath has done very little wrong thus far, Healy's inclusion would considerably beef up the Irish scrum.

Schmidt has clearly decided that Healy will make a better impact off the bench, but I believe it is a mistake not to start him.

Ireland's nine-match unbeaten record rests on the shoulders of the forwards tomorrow afternoon. If the Irish pack can stand up and hold their own against England, the home back-line has the winning of this game.

But if England drag Ireland into a war up front, and if the scrum starts to leak kickable penalties, England have what it takes to leave Dublin with a victory.

Either way, there won't be more than a score in it.

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