Saturday 24 August 2019

Rúaidhrí O'Connor: 'Mean defences suggest this showdown will be tight'

Ireland and England don't give much away but Schmidt's men hold the attacking edge

White wall: Tadhg Furlong is tackled by England duo Billy Vunipola, left, and Joe Marler during their last visit to Six Nations. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
White wall: Tadhg Furlong is tackled by England duo Billy Vunipola, left, and Joe Marler during their last visit to Six Nations. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

Eddie Jones says tomorrow's game will be won in two departments, with his scrum-half Ben Youngs neatly summing up the message from the camp with his assertion that "you have to win the floor and you've got to win the air against Ireland".

Much of the focus this week has been on those two departments, with Joe Schmidt's side's capacity to hold on to possession for long periods of time and their ability to reclaim their own kicks getting plenty of air-time.

The battle for possession will be key but the game will be decided by what teams do with the ball once they have it.

And recent evidence suggests that this will be a tight affair because both of these teams are excellent defensively.

That's why Ireland's greater attacking efficiency could see them over the line.

Research published this morning by the analysis team at 'Gracenote Sports' shows that England and Ireland are the best teams in the tournament at denying opponents entry to their '22.

And, when the opposition do get into the danger zone, both teams are good at limiting the damage.

In their 11 games against elite opposition, Ireland have allowed teams into their '22 5.64 times a match, and they concede only 2.05 points per visit.

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That's the best record of the Six Nations teams, but England limit teams to 5.92 visits a match with an average concession of 2.07 points in their equivalent last 12 games.

So, we can expect a claustrophobic evening at the Aviva Stadium.

Ireland fans, however, can take heart from their side's superior return from their own attacking endeavours.

They manage 6.45 '22 entries per match with a return of 2.99 points per entry, with England managing 6.17 entries and 2.07 points per entry.

It's a substantial difference.

This fixture has been on the agenda for some time and both set-ups will have analysed the other to death.

Schmidt has talked about the need for an 80-minute performance and yesterday spoke about his team's defence in last year's tournament.

Responding to a question about the midfield, the Ireland coach suggested that Ireland's wide defence continues to be a concern.

"Of the 13 busts (line-breaks conceded) I think 10 of them were up the edges," he said of last season.

"There were a few up the middle, but up the edges and then you're a bit fragile in the middle. We want to make sure we're rock-solid on those edges as well."

England have been one of the teams who have enjoyed some space on the edge of Ireland's defence, particularly when Billy Vunipola has been able to suck in defenders and create space for his team-mates.

The Saracens No 8 is a potential game-changer if he can hit the heights of Jones' first couple of seasons, when he was one of the most destructive forces in the game.

The return of Manu Tuilagi and the other Vunipola brother, Mako, also adds power to the English mix.

Both Schmidt and Jones have promised brutality and the close-in exchanges are likely to live up to that billing.

Without Sam Underhill, who so discommoded Leinster in December, Tom Curry is handed the job of getting on Ireland's ball and slowing down the supply to Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton who dictate the play from a strong platform.

Jones knows that if his team can win collisions and make life difficult for Ireland at the breakdown then they can put the squeeze on the half-backs and make them kick.

Conversely, Schmidt knows that if his team can win the battle at the tackle area he has the right decision-makers to make the difference.

The aerial battle will be key and Owen Farrell and Youngs are sure to test Robbie Henshaw's full-back credentials with a few early bombs.

Response

"If they do (target him), I'm pretty sure Robbie has a pretty good response to that. Nobody in our backfield is left alone, Schmidt said yesterday as he gave his new full-back his full backing.

The coach wants Henshaw to add value to Ireland's attack and, while it has been a while since he played at No 15, he will relish the extra time and space the role affords.

The contest for possession will be crucial and Jones may come to regret his decision not to go with a third lineout specialist and go hard at Rory Best's throw.

Unless Peter O'Mahony can repeat his 2017 lineout heroics, the set-pieces may cancel each other out, meaning the ground game will be key.

If Ireland can hold their own, then the recent evidence suggests their composure and efficiency in attack, combined with their stingy defence, will see them through in a tight contest.

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