Monday 19 March 2018

Ireland must grasp ideal opportunity to end disappointing Six Nations on a high

Ruthless England will push Schmidt's side to limit but motivation won't be a problem

Schmidt, with characteristic thoroughness in the analysis room and on the training pitch, will undoubtedly formulate a specific tactical plan to negate the visitors’ strengths and expose their weaknesses. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Schmidt, with characteristic thoroughness in the analysis room and on the training pitch, will undoubtedly formulate a specific tactical plan to negate the visitors’ strengths and expose their weaknesses. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

Jim Glennon

The signs were clear from afar that the atmosphere was building from early afternoon in Cardiff on Friday, and with the roof closed, 70-odd thousand enthusiastic supporters and two teams for whom much was at stake, the occasion didn't disappoint. Sadly for Ireland, the atmosphere was the only aspect of the event to live up to its billing as they only managed to impose themselves spasmodically on the game - a scoreline of 22-9, and a try count of three-nil, saying it all.

Italy aside, home advantage remains the tournament's strongest currency and Wales, relatively unimpressive to date and having suffered such a late loss to England in their previous home game, were under extreme pressure to deliver - losing both of their home games would have dire consequences for several careers.

The stakes mightn't be quite so high for Ireland in the context of England in Dublin next week but there's no doubt that, for several, issues of a domestic nature now predominate over prospective Lions call-ups.

Traditionally the Irish team and crowd, like most others, don't have a particular difficulty in rousing themselves for the visit of England, and it will be all the more so for the unbeaten 2017 edition. The exact level of added bite from the Irish players will be interesting to watch in the light of Friday's defeat and the manner of it.

The recent media chat of England inside centre Owen Farrell having injured himself in a training ground incident with, of all things, coach Eddie Jones's dog, along with Jones's borderline offensive reaction to the Italian 'non-ruck' strategy in Twickenham in round three, have served to provide useful distractions from the fact that the team's Six Nations performance levels have fallen short of those achieved in the earlier days of his tenure.

That said, England remain an extremely efficient unit; strong up front, with a routinely ruthless instinct for even the faintest hint of an opponent's vulnerability. Even if not operating at their optimum, they'll still present a formidable obstacle to the efforts of Joe Schmidt and his group to finish a disappointing tournament on a positive note.

The physical contest, as we saw to our cost in Cardiff, remains the game's fundamental challenge and England's size and strength, bolstered in recent weeks by the return to fitness of the Vunipola brothers, will present a huge challenge to, what had been until Cardiff, Ireland's much-improved set-piece and consequent capacity to generate quality possession to trouble defences.

The Irish eight, despite the setbacks in Edinburgh and Cardiff, have improved immeasurably since the defeat in Twickenham last season and in Tadhg Furlong have a technician at tighthead with the ability to not just absorb pressure and survive, but also pose serious problems for his direct opponent. The recent form of his 80-minute colleague in Cardiff, Donnacha Ryan, and the pair's capacity for recovery in the wake of Friday's exertions, will be important - as will a significantly improved input from a probably-adjusted back-row.

In scrum-half Ben Youngs, out-half George Ford, and Farrell in midfield, England have a pivotal axis of real quality, with each posing their own threats and bringing distinct skills to their attack. The quality of their kicking is clear, while Youngs' snipes around the breakdown keep every back-row in check and fully occupied, creating split-second opportunities for his colleagues outside him.

England's finishing qualities out wide have been evident throughout the tournament and whatever outside backs Jones selects for the visit to the Aviva, the Irish defence, exposed in this area at Murrayfield and challenged too at times in Cardiff by the physicality of their Welsh opponents, must be on high alert.

One of the major talking points around Jones's England has been the form of his captain Dylan Hartley. Suspended in advance of the competition, having been sent off for dangerous play against Leinster in December, the Northampton hooker has struggled since his return and the sight of him being called ashore early in the second-half is now a familiar one.

In Jamie George England have a replacement hooker of international quality, and in better form, but it's not just the skipper's form that's open to question. For most, his appointment as captain by Jones was a roll of the dice, the full implications of which are now coming home to roost as they close in on New Zealand's 18-game unbeaten record.

The failure of Hartley and his leadership colleagues to grasp the specifics of the ruck laws in the face of Italy's approach was as embarrassing as it was enlightening and while Jones may, thankfully, have few equals in the dark arts of rugby media manipulation, Ireland should have an advantage in the intellectual and strategic fields through Schmidt and skipper Rory Best.

Schmidt, with characteristic thoroughness in the analysis room and on the training pitch, will undoubtedly formulate a specific tactical plan to negate the visitors' strengths and expose their weaknesses. While on-field execution in Cardiff was poor and our key men failed to perform, in Schmidt we still have one of the best around. Those on-field leaders, bitterly disappointed with Friday, are entirely capable of implementing the appropriate game plan, while at the same time reacting to their opponents and re-jigging as required in the heat of battle.

We've had several strong reminders this season of the fine margins on which games at this level, and ultimately tournaments, are won and lost. Championships aside, we witnessed on Friday the raw ferocity of a Welsh team battling for personal and national pride. Similarly, it will take little motivation for Best and his team to react appropriately to the sight of the red rose on Saturday. The welcome and hospitality for which we are well-known, and of which they and their coach are deserving, will no doubt be rolled out for them!

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