Saturday 24 February 2018

Tony Ward: Two tribes will go to war but Jones has superior firepower at his disposal

Bench strength could be the critical factor for England but role of underdog will suit Ireland on home territory

Jared Payne has a key role to play for Joe Schmidt today. Photo: Sportsfile
Jared Payne has a key role to play for Joe Schmidt today. Photo: Sportsfile
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Those of a certain vintage will recall the Frankie Goes To Hollywood hit of the early eighties. As soon as Eddie Jones announced his team and Joe Schmidt followed suit, the refrain from 'Two Tribes' - when two tribes go to war - was rattling around inside my head.

Both Jones and forwards coach Steve Borthwick, no shrinking violet himself, were at pains to emphasise the toughness of the Dublin challenge, perhaps put simplest by the head coach when he reiterated the need to be prepared "emotionally, physically and mentally".

Naturally, Ireland will have been adopting the same essential principles in terms of training and preparation in Carton House. Nothing new there but what jumps out on the back of Schmidt's unenforced decision to replace Devin Toner with Iain Henderson is a heavy emphasis on meeting this English juggernaut head on.

The reintroduction of Billy Vunipola for Nathan Hughes from the start is a clear declaration of physical intent from the off and, for the record, I thought Hughes was outstanding against the Scots. Mind you, Jack Nowell wasn't half bad either but in Anthony Watson and Vunipola the elder, the former Wallaby coach is spoilt for choice and the two players coming in after a record Calcutta Cup return are even more physical than the men they replace.

Back in 2003, England's World Cup-winning side was backboned by some of the greatest and hardest players ever to wear the rose. I'm thinking specifically of Steve Thompson, Phil Vickery, Martin Johnson, Ben Kay, Richard Hill and Lawrence Dallaglio. The likes of Martin Corry, Jason Leonard and Lewis Moody couldn't even make the starting line-up.

The parallel between '03 and 2017 can easily be drawn. From Joe Marler through Dylan Hartley and Dan Cole, backed by Courtney Lawes and Joe Launchbury and completed by Mario Itoje and James Haskell either side of Vunipola, this English pack is the real deal. And just as back then they too have incredible strength in depth on the bench in all eight replacements named. Where Schmidt is looking to get in terms of a rotational 23 Jones is already at.

Robust The decision to leave out a 6ft 10ins lineout specialist and replace him with a much more robust but less imposing 6ft 6ins alternative is bold but calculated. This smacks of an Irish forward unit set to turn back the clock and meet what they know is coming head on or, as the great Ray Gravell used to say, "get that retaliation in first".

Certainly on the basis that Jared Payne and Kieran Marmion represent enforced changes and so too Andrew Conway (whose call-up is richly deserved), it would appear that Toner is shipping a fair share of the culpability for last week's undoing in Cardiff. That said, his inclusion on the bench is a redeeming concession of sorts and yet with Peter O'Mahony still sidelined it could be argued that potentially our most fertile source of possession out of touch will be wearing numbers 19 and 20.

To be fair, fitness allowing, I expected the same XV after the Cardiff loss with the replacement for Tommy Bowe the only likely change to the 23. Instead injury has claimed Rob Kearney and Conor Murray although Payne would have been in my starting side while Marmion showed immense promise in that second half in Cardiff. His speed of pass and ability to snipe are his greatest assets.

Murray will be missed, that is for sure but it's a great opportunity for Marmion and Luke McGrath. So too for Henderson to finally make one lock position his own. He won't be found wanting.

Certainly from this distance it looks as if the lineout could be under pressure but in the maul and at the breakdown we will give as good as we get. Vunipola definitely brings a different dimension to England's go-forward ambitions and gain-line breaking. From an Irish perspective, I still don't believe we are getting a full return from CJ Stander. I see the logic behind this ball-carrying Irish back-row but I just feel that by employing Stander on occasion as an out-and-out breaking eight (specifically off the scrum), the mix and match (between Stander and Jamie Heaslip) could be so much more effective. I suspect too that Greg Feek will have had a big input in training this past week. Maybe it's a little bit of swings and roundabouts: what we lose in the lineout we gain in the scrum.

With the notable exception of Henderson for Toner, Schmidt has adopted the Rob Howley approach with this re-selected squad owing him a favour. And whatever else the backlash is guaranteed.

The big question is for how long will it last. While we do have a formidable bench, the English reserve eight in terms of potential impact look even better again.

Johnny Sexton's tactical variation, particularly when kicking out of hand, will again be pivotal. Then there is the Andy Farrell factor and we're not hinting at any inside information in relation to his son. The key today will be in defensive line-speed.

It's important to clarify the difference between defensive line-speed and speed in attack. We do not have the speediest finishers in the world and we accept that (although Garry Ringrose does have that potential). However, in defence, particularly when factoring in the Jonathan Joseph threat which was driven home at Twickenham last week, it is imperative that between them Ringrose, Payne, and Robbie Henshaw too, close off that 13/15 channel.

The defensive alignment in general comes from inside to out with the ten leading the charge. Sexton was particularly sharp in the first half in Cardiff twice getting on the end of Dan Biggar's attempted pass. That said the use of the shooter can be particularly effective when intelligently read and well-timed.

Brian O'Driscoll was a master at the art when breaking alignment and coming up the outside channel but almost in a saucer formation at breakneck speed. The danger is in leaving an overly inviting gap between the centres. I know at the heart of the Irish coaching philosophy, whether in defence or attack, is coming up square and I expect that to be the case later today. Square but at pace.

Naturally, all eyes will be on Joseph after last weekend's tour de force and he's a real threat. Jones has put together a winning unit but with an identifiable balance. Between eight forwards, three links (Ben Youngs, George Ford and Owen Farrell) plus four lethal finishers. We are nowhere near that point in our development.

Spirit Does it make for mission impossible? Not at all. Rest assured the spirit of Croker 2007 will be invoked. Sometimes old habits die hard and when playing England being underdog is no bad place to be. This is definitively the best English team and squad since the World Cup-winning group of the early noughties. But we're not all that bad ourselves despite Edinburgh and Cardiff.

One thing we are guaranteed is a contest with no holds barred and no quarter asked nor given. A win and we could possibly fill second to England but lose and it looks like a fourth place finish with the Scots almost guaranteed to take all five points against the hapless Italians and the winner in Paris between the French and Welsh also set to overtake us should we lose at the Aviva. Everything to gain but equally everything to lose. England by eight.

Irish Independent

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