Saturday 17 February 2018

Focus is on fresh faces, but Ross's strength will be key if Ireland are to have shot at victory

Visitors must create doubt as England return to the scene of World Cup nightmare

Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Amid all the new faces and the furore around Johnny Sexton, Mike Ross has slipped back into the international fold with a typical lack of fuss.

He may be 36, but the scrum issues endured in his absence mean that the fit-again Corkman remains a pivotal member of Ireland's team.

Today, he returns to a venue where his loss was most felt four years ago and faces an opponent who he has struggled with in the past in Joe Marler yet Joe Schmidt has had no hesitation in jettisoning his heir apparent Tadhg Furlong. The Wexford man's time will come, but the Paris end-game reiterated for Schmidt the value of experience.

You won't hear anyone in Ireland's set-up say it for want of upsetting Nathan White or Furlong, but the return of Ross for his 57th cap and the introduction of Cian Healy off the bench have strengthened Ireland's set-piece prowess.

Going to Twickenham, that gives them a chance.

Parity, at least, at scrum and a lineout that has run fairly smoothly to date should guarantee Ireland a decent amount of possession. The next step is to win the collisions which is where this Ireland team may run into problems.

Having been goaded for two weeks by Eddie Jones who clearly wants Schmidt to send his runners straight at England's powerful forwards, the New Zealander's task is to stay strong and stick to his guns.

Ireland have, of course, kicked less than their hosts in this campaign but they may look to move the bigger pack around through the clever kicking of Conor Murray and Sexton.

Ireland's out-half will want to put his rugby back on the agenda by silencing Jones whose crude comments about Sexton's parents were deliberately aimed at unsettling the 30-year-old.

Rather than throw himself into the physical stuff in order to prove a point, it's important that Sexton remain calm and controls the game.

Last year, he dominated George Ford in a famous win and, with the Bath fly-half looking increasingly brittle, he will look to ask questions of his opposite number once again. Stuart McCloskey will make for an able foil.

With the Bangor Bulldozer on board, Ireland's backline are, for once, bigger than their opponents who give away a stone a man in weight and four inches in height to the visitors.

Across the pitch, Ireland have the more experienced team with 621 caps to England's 512 and an average age of 28 compared to the hosts' 26.

Perhaps crucially, on their first return to Twickenham since the devastation of a home World Cup pool exit, Jones fields a team with 13 survivors from the tournament. Only captain Dylan Hartley, left out in disgrace, and new hope Maro Itoje are fresh faces.

Ireland's mission is to create doubt in English minds. If they can stay in the game until it reaches the 60th minute, they can bring back memories of that wretched September and October for their hosts.

Against Scotland, England wobbled when the heat came on but their opponents weren't good enough to make it count but Ireland should represent a step up.

"It's hugely dangerous to start poorly," Schmidt said. "Last year, in the World Cup warm-ups, they were up 12-3 very early on and it could have been 20-3. They blew us off the park in the first 20 minutes and we were easing our way into World Cup preparation and I don't think you can afford to be caught on the back foot in the manner that we were last time we were there. The time before, it wasn't too dissimilar. They went very, very close to scoring early on. Jonny May possibly could have got in and decided to stay infield and we managed to cope with that.

"I thought it was an unbelievably good Test match, I know was only 13-10 with one try apiece, but we got so close to scoring another couple of tries and they got even closer to scoring another two or three themselves. It was end-to-end stuff.

"Sometimes, as it was with Wales in the first round of the Six Nations, while both teams didn't quite capitalise on a number of chances, the quality of the Test match was maybe even world-class.

"My expectation is that they are going to be physical, that they are going to start fast, that they will be well-coached and cohesive and that they have a real continuity of selection; there has been very few changes in the last three weeks and they have been more tinkering than wholesale and even then, if you go back to the two previous visits that we've had, it's very similar personnel."

Ireland's problem, as they face the meanest defence in the competition to date, will be scoring tries. They've scored one in two games to date and have faded in the second-half of both games.

That means that they must start well to have a chance. England will look to run them over in the tight before isolating forwards in the backline.

Ross, Rory Best and Devin Toner can all expect to be targeted by the likes of Anthony Watson, Jack Nowell and Jonathan Joseph, while Ireland's wide defence will be tested more than it has been since the defeat to Argentina.

With a sizeable pack and a potent backline, England look the more dangerous team.

This season, the Anglo-Irish traffic in Europe has been largely one way and the momentum is with Eddie Jones' team who have had a far more favourable schedule to date.

If Ireland are to produce a performance worthy of a result, it will be one of their best but there will be an underlying anger based on the England coach's public pronouncements about their talisman.

The set-piece looks stronger, the new faces add intrigue, but Ireland still look short.

Verdict: England

Irish Independent

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