This weekend is a daunting trip for Ireland, not only because of what is at stake, but because their record in Twickenham doesn’t make for pleasant reading. Ireland haven’t beaten England in their home ground since 2010, or to put it another way, Ireland haven’t won in Twickenham since England hit rock-bottom under Martin Johnson. The London ground has become something of a fortress for England, with their last loss there being the RWC 2015 defeat to Australia.
It’s not quite mission impossible for Ireland this weekend; England are coming into this fixture with no form, and they have glaring weaknesses that Ireland have the tools to exploit. Ireland were competitive in their last two visits to Twickenham, but they are facing an enormous challenge, and there are difficult obstacles they will have to navigate to come away with a win.
Something occurred to me at the end of last year’s November Series that I had forgotten about until Shane Horgan articulated a similar sentiment in TV3’s post-match analysis of England’s loss to Scotland: England didn’t really make any progress under Eddie Jones in 2017. Horgan went so far as to say that they peaked during their 2016 June tour of Australia, but I think England were just as, if not more, impressive in November of that year. They cruised past South Africa without getting out of second gear, eviscerated Samoa and Australia, and beat Argentina with 14 players on the pitch for 75 minutes.
However, their unbeaten run in 2016 hasn’t been matched, in performance levels or results, and if you were to judge them on those two criteria, you would have to say that they have gotten progressively worse since the beginning of last year. They weren’t miles away from losing to Wales or France this year or last, and Ireland turned them inside-out at the end of last year’s Championship.
Their November Tests last year were dour affairs, even if the scorelines were impressive. The only thing they did of note in 2017 was to take an experimental squad down to Argentina and beat a Pumas side twice on their home patch, but it must be remembered that Argentina hadn’t played together for almost 8 months at that stage, and they tend to save their better performances for the Rugby Championship.
An interesting development in this year’s Calcutta Cup clash that is essentially a microcosm of the speed bump that England have hit was George Ford being replaced by Ben Te’o. It’s happened numerous times before, and with Te’o wearing the 22 jersey instead of another out-half being on the bench, it was definitely a planned tactical substitution, but the manner in which it did, and the change in attacking strategy that followed could represent a significant backwards step for England.
Having someone like Te’o on the bench makes sense. He’s a powerful runner with a knack for offloading, ideal for ensuring that your team keeps moving forward by bashing holes in the defence when opposition legs start to tire, but he was largely ineffective against Scotland. Watching Farrell repeatedly shovel the ball on to him to no avail was reminiscent of England’s attacking play up until Jones took charge, whene they opted for physical centres like Manu Tuilagi, Brad Barritt or Luther Barrell, with Farrell wearing the 10 shirt.
At the time, Farrell stood a little deeper and his passing wasn’t as crisp, which meant that England’s back line movements were never particularly exciting or threatening against organised defences. Jones bringing in George Ford at out-half with Farrell at 12 in a two five-eighths system was supposed to represent a radical change in England’s philosophy, yet as soon as it stopped working, they regressed, and the knock-on effect was an insipid attacking display, with over-use of the flat pass to Te’o:
This change in tactics demonstrates that Jones is smart enough to have a fallback if things don’t go according to script, but when Plan A and Plan B didn’t pan out as expected, England couldn’t adapt to the circumstances that were presented to them.
The types of players who form the 10-12-13 axis determine their team’s style of attack, and England’s starting midfield for this encounter is going to be a continuation of what we saw in the second half in Murrayfield. Farrell, Te’o and Jonathan Joseph have all been picked to start on Saturday, and it’s a bad call from Jones when you consider the players that Joe Schmidt has selected in the same positions and where Ireland’s defensive weak points lie. Farrell was a line-breaking threat against Italy and Scotland, but the probability of him getting through or around Johnny Sexton is low.
Te’o is a crash ball merchant, but Ireland have a strong, physical presence at 12, too, in the shape of Bundee Aki, and it’s hard to imagine Te’o getting any change out of the Connacht centre by charging directly at him. Joseph has dancing feet and can unsettle the best of defences, but Garry Ringrose showed against Scotland that he is well able to manage that type of 13. He outperformed Joseph last year, and while the English centre won’t be as poor this weekend as he was then, the two should be at least evenly matched.
The Ford-Farrell combination at 10 and 12 hasn’t functioned this year, but it would have given England a better chance of getting the ball to the edges, where Ireland were vulnerable against Italy and Wales. Dropping Ford and reverting to type has all the hallmarks of a panicked, reactive selection from Jones. It doesn’t account for what their opponents are good and bad at, and it has the potential to damage Ford’s confidence.
England’s greatest successes have been built on a dominant pack, and their win-loss ratio under Jones has been no different. Whatever about revolutionising their back play by bringing two playmakers into the starting XV, the England head coach has placed a premium on England’s ability to put the squeeze on the opposition up front, and even though they have been successful to varying degrees in doing so in recent years, their forwards appear to be unbalanced and off the pace, and their inability to get over the gain line has further demonstrated that they are reliant on Billy Vunipola to generate go-forward ball.
Dan Cole hit a slump some time ago, injury and age look to have taken their toll on Chris Robshaw, and none of England’s gifted locks have reached the lofty standards that we have come to expect from them. Joe Launchbury is treading water, George Kruis has clocked up a lot of minutes this season, and one has to assume that Maro Itoje’s uncharacteristically flat performances are a severe case of post-Lions tour burnout. The only English starting forward who is close to top form is Mako Vunipola and Kyle Sinckler will bring a vibrancy to England’s carries, but the rest are fatigued and/or carrying knocks.
It doesn’t help that England’s bench hasn’t offered much in the way of impact. Alec Hepburn and Harry Williams were excellent at tight against Italy but both are finding their feet at Test level. Joe Marler is tricky in the scrum, but he’s a not an explosive ball carrier à la Cian Healy who can turn the tide in the last quarter, and Sam Underhill’s injury has robbed England of an energetic second-half breakdown presence.
On a collective level, England’s set-pieces aren’t going to have Ireland quaking in their boots. Their maul has been bang average, in spite of the fact that their pack has as many locks in it as possible. Italy neutralised them before they ever got going, Scotland repelled them back in Murrayfield and Wales stopped them from getting out of first gear:
England typically make mincemeat of Scotland with their drives, and can usually count on winning a penalty or two in this area against Wales. Ireland’s counter-mauling is a few levels above what both of those teams are capable of, and should be able to handle whatever Steve Borthwick’s pack throw at them.
England’s scrum hasn’t been a force to be reckoned with, either. Wales and France both had parity at scrum-time, and Scotland, who normally struggle against England in the tight phases, coped with them easily:
The only time that England enjoyed any sort of dominance in the scrum was against a replacement Italian front row who currently have less than 20 caps between them. Man-for-man, Ireland can match England for quality in the front row, and they have scrummaged effectively as a unit regardless of who is on the field, so it’s unlikely that the home side will milk them for penalties at the coalface.
England’s defence, another cornerstone of their ascension to No.2 in the world rankings, is also demonstrating symptoms of a malaise. Paul Gustard comes from the same environment as Andy Farrell, so it’s no surprise that he espouses a Saracens-style blitz defence. Rushing up all the time has its drawbacks, but it’s something that English teams down the years have been famous for, and their title wins in 2016 and 2017 can both be partly attributed to aggression and fast reorganisation off the ball.
Strangely, though, England’s line speed has slowed down considerably. There were plenty of examples of this last Saturday, but the most damning one occurred in the 51st minute when France moved the ball from one touch line to the other in what was a relatively straightforward wide movement:
This was simple play from France, with no misdirection to speak of, just simple passing along the line. Anyone in England’s defensive line could have raced up to smash someone backwards or force a handling error.
Two years ago, they would have relished the opportunity, but the manner in which they stood off and let the French draw and pass freely is incongruous with the aggressive mindset that has characterised everything that England have done under Jones. Maybe the hunger isn’t there after winning back-to-back titles, but if England defend like this against Ireland, they are going to concede a lot of points.
Schmidt has received criticism from certain quarters for his team’s perceived one-dimensional, blunt form of attack; it’s a view that ignores the subtlety and variation to what Ireland do with ball in hand, but even if you do subscribe to it, there’s no denying that they carry the ball with purpose. If England’s intensity isn’t at the right level, Ireland’s phase play will be nigh-on unstoppable.
Despite the serious problems they have had in this Championship, there are areas where England could still trouble Ireland. Their defensive lineout is as strong as ever, and it has gotten better with each game. They were highly disruptive against a French team that had two locks who are over 6’6″, on top of the 6’4½” Yacouba Camara. Camara is an athletic lineout jumper, but in the below example, Itoje reads the throw and is all over him:
The Saracens lock committed an offence by making contact in the air, but all that matters is that he got away with it, and England won’t care about the legality of how they deconstruct Ireland’s main source of points. A couple of Ireland’s lineouts were spoiled on Saturday, and England have more talented defensive jumpers than Scotland, so Ireland will have to utilise James Ryan’s height, not to mention alternating their throws between their locks and Peter O’Mahony.
Ryan has taken to international rugby like a duck to water, being one of Ireland’s leading performers in any statistic that you can think of, but he has his work cut out for him against proven operators. Having Iain Henderson start alongside him is a surprise call, considering that the Ulsterman was impactful from the bench on Saturday. Apart from the value of his calmness of temperament and wealth of experience, Devin Toner’s set-piece astuteness makes his omission from the starting pack surprising.
If Ireland were to have issues securing their own lineout ball because of English interference, Toner affords them the option of guaranteeing that they retain the ball if they throw it to him at 2. Ireland have been caught out in big games before (v Wales in 2015, v Scotland this year) by trying to get quick ball from the tail early on; throwing to the front limits what they can do with their possession, but the safe bet is often the right one.
Schmidt made the same call last year and it was vindicated by Henderson’s performance. England were anaemic in the lineout on the day, and Toner’s mauling turned out to be vital in Ireland closing out the game when he was introduced, but if Ireland aren’t ahead in the final quarter, Toner isn’t a game-changing substitute, and it’s a decision that could decide the outcome of this clash.
As formidable as their defensive lineout has been, England’s breakdown work has gone from bad to worse over the course of their previous four Tests, with the Scotland game being the nadir. Jones’ back row selections have hamstrung his team in this department. A cursory glance at the starting loose forwards he has chosen in this Championship shows that there hasn’t been one poaching specialist at 7 in their starting line-ups thus far, with no balance provided by the other back rowers who were picked to make up for this:
Even when Sam Underhill was fit, Jones wouldn’t start him, and although Chris Robshaw’s honesty of effort is undoubted, he’s not a natural openside. The Harlequins flanker has always been admirable in his endeavour to take on the responsibilities of a 7, but bar the odd semi-convincing performance, it was never a proper fit.
Take, for example, his actions and those of his opposite number at the breakdown in Round 3. Anthony Watson gets isolated after carrying into contact and Hamish Watson instantly spots the opening, and gets low quickly to apply pressure over the ball until a penalty is awarded:
When the roles are reversed, it’s plain to see that Robshaw doesn’t have the same instinct or pace as someone like Hamish Watson. Less than two minutes after the Scottish openside drew a penalty from England, Robshaw gets a sniff of a turnover, but he’s not fast enough to react, and even when he does, it takes him half a second longer than his Scottish counterpart to get into a latch position:
The body position from Robshaw isn’t strong or technically correct; his shoulders are too high and his attempt to stand his ground and stay in place when Hamish Watson and Ryan Wilson arrive to clear him out is weak. It’s harsh to criticise a likeable, modest player who has battled manfully for his country, but the reality is that he has been shoehorned into a position that he is not built for.
Before Seán O’Brien developed the groundhog side of his game, his back row colleagues at Leinster and Ireland shared the jackalling duties with him. That type of compensation isn’t happening with England at the moment, and that’s mainly down to the players that Jones has selected alongside Robshaw.
Courtney Lawes is out of place in the back row and Nathan Hughes is a carrying number eight. Sam Simmonds has the required physique to fill this void, but he is too inexperienced to impose himself on games at Test level, and being moved from pillar to post by his coaches isn’t doing him any favours.
Underhill might have been the answer, but he’s out of the picture because of a toe injury, and there’s no way of knowing if Jones would have brought him into the starting XV anyway. James Haskell has been recalled at 7, and notwithstanding his contribution in terms of carrying off the bench against France, he doesn’t fit the mould any more than Robshaw.
With no fetcher in the English back row, Ireland will likely have the upper hand at the breakdown with two natural scavengers like Peter O’Mahony and Dan Leavy in their pack. Preventing England from deciding the pattern of the game is going to be key this weekend, and if Ireland are to do so, then disrupting their possession at every turn is something they should strive towards.
Given their rucking prowess, success rate out of touch against Scotland, the otherwise imperious Johnny Sexton’s kicking out of hand being affected by an ongoing lower back injury and Elliot Daly, Jonny May, Anthony Watson and Mike Brown being dangerous on the counter-attack, keeping the ball in play would seem to be the best course of action for Ireland. Scotland discommoded England by limiting the amount of set-pieces in the game, and Ireland could do worse than use that template. It would be a complete 180 from the game plan they executed last Saturday, but it would play to their strengths and expose England’s frailties.
The God Of War
Ireland denied England a Grand Slam at the end of last year’s Championship in a performance of hard-nosed fury. They were clever and skillful on the day, too, but the win was founded on their refusal to take a backwards step against an English pack that had been hyped up throughout the tournament. Tactical intelligence and technical accuracy won’t be enough to win this game; Ireland need red-blooded passion in spades this time round as well, and they know exactly who to draw inspiration from:
If Ireland come out all guns blazing against an England side that are lagging due to several of their players not having last summer off, there’s no reason why they can’t secure a Grand Slam. Twickenham has been a tough place to go for past Irish teams, but the likes of Tadhg Furlong, James Ryan, Dan Leavy, Garry Ringrose and Jacob Stockdale don’t have any baggage of that kind.
Two years ago, Ireland almost took full control of the game from England in the fourth quarter on the back of an Ultan Dillane line break and a Josh van der Flier support line. Dillane has fallen down the pecking order and van der Flier is injured, but if the youthful exuberance of the likes of Ryan, Leavy, Ringrose and Stockdale can be mixed with the experience of players like Rory Best, Cian Healy, Devin Toner, Peter O’Mahony, Conor Murray, Johnny Sexton and Rob Kearney, Ireland may just strike a balance that produces a history-making performance.