History tells us that being favourites doesn’t suit Ireland, and even though this hasn’t been as much of a problem for Joe Schmidt as it was for his predecessors, there’s still a sense of discomfort that goes with knowing that they are short odds to win their next Test. As first-up games in the Six Nations go, playing England at home isn’t the toughest fixture you could get, but it’s not miles away from it, either. Eddie Jones’ side are coming in off the back of an Autumn Series where they were two points off a clean sweep, and despite the dismal form of their club teams in the Heineken Cup, are more than capable of troubling Ireland in every phase of play this weekend.
Their one loss in November was to the All Blacks, when a missed place-kick was the difference between winning and losing, and although the victory over South Africa was narrow and the scoreline (and general performance) against Japan was less than flattering, three from four is still an excellent return for a squad who had been written off by many after their disappointing win/loss ratio in last year’s Six Nations and June Tests.
They will be seething after having their home ground raided by Ireland ten months ago, and playing a team who are out for revenge when you have everything to lose is a dangerous proposition. Ireland’s last two victories over England came down to shutting their back line down through a combination of denying them clean possession from the lineout and blitzing their midfield so that the ball couldn’t get into the five-metre channel with regularity or fluency. More of the same will be required, but Ireland also have several threats on an individual level to nullify if they are to start this Championship off with a win.
All-Singing, All-Dancing Back Line
Much like they did last year, Ireland should be able to match England for intensity in the forward exchanges, but trying to get a handle on their back line will be challenging. Henry Slade has brought a passing dimension to England’s back play that they haven’t had at 13 for an age, filling in as England’s second playmaker in the back line in the absence of George Ford from the starting XV, and with Manu Tuilagi back to full fitness and form, Bundee Aki and Garry Ringrose are going to have a job on their hands containing the English centres:
In the tramlines, Jack Nowell has put his injury troubles behind him and Jonny May is on a hot streak. Elliot Daly has question marks over his aerial skills, but he’s a lethal broken-field runner, and with Owen Farrell in the form of his life pulling the strings at 10, his father has his work cut out for him this weekend:
England’s back line haven’t quite clicked yet, but it’s only a matter of time before they do. We’ve seen in the past how Ireland have failed to recover when giving up a substantial lead early on, and the last thing they want is to be scrambling desperately in defence with a player like Ford coming off the bench to capitalize on exposed outside shoulders by putting runners into space at different angles.
Identifying key players in the opposition ranks is a crucial part of any game plan, and one that Ireland would do well to target is Mako Vunipola. His older brother may get the plaudits for his ability to barrel through defenders but the Saracens loosehead prop has quietly developed into a vital player for England. With Billy Vunipola being injured or below his best form for large chunks of the last two seasons, England have, in contrast to Ireland, had a shortage of ball-carriers in the back row.
Kyle Sinckler, Jamie George and Maro Itoje are all capable of getting over the gain line, but the loose forwards that England have used in recent years haven’t been standout tackle-breakers. Chris Robshaw and James Haskell were defensive workhorses, Nathan Hughes has never fully transferred his club form to the Test arena, Tom Curry and Sam Underhill are scavengers, Brad Shields has been a passenger in all of the games he has played for England to date, and Mark Wilson is more of an all-rounder than a gifted athlete.
Mako Vunipola’s dynamism is therefore all the more important, and England consistently use him as a go-to carrier in phase play when attempting to generate momentum:
The most significant contribution that Vunipola makes with ball in hand, though, is in his role as a pivot in linking the forwards and the backs. Whenever England go out the back door via their forwards, it is usually Vunipola throwing the pull-back pass from first-receiver, and he has become one of the top front rowers in the northern hemisphere at executing this tactic:
When someone demands attention as a carrier, they draw in defenders, and as we can see in the above examples, this creates space out wide if the player in question can pass before contact. When Vunipola gets the ball in his hands, Ireland have to be prepared for both the carry and the swivel pass, but there is a system that can account for both.
If two defenders rush up into Vunipola’s face, and another shoots up into the space just outside him (thereby occupying the passing channel between him and the next English attacker), it means that he gets caught behind the gain line if he trucks it up himself and risks throwing an intercept if he passes (making him reluctant to do so), thereby negating his strengths. For the first time in decades, England’s back line is more potent than their pack, and from an Irish perspective, the less they get the ball out wide, the better.
Make Your Own Luck
Of the three tries that Ireland scored in Twickenham last year, two came down to the bounce of a ball, and the other was a product of a pre-planned set-piece move splitting a defence completely (a rarity at Test level these days). You could argue that all three were highly opportunistic but they were scored and the result still stands. Ireland can’t depend on being that fortunate this time round, and England have enough flaws to ensure that this isn’t the case.
With regards to the point of attack, it would be unwise for Ireland to target the 10-12 channel; Farrell is one of the biggest out-halves in the game and Tuilagi is immensely strong in contact and technically sound in the tackle. England’s defensive weaknesses lie further out, at outside centre and down the wings. Henry Slade is relatively light for an international centre, and given how badly he dealt with Damien de Allende back in November, it would a good idea for Ireland to send Bundee Aki running at him as often as possible to see how much punishment he can take before he starts missing tackles or goes off injured.
On the right wing, Jonny May is a poor defensive reader, and Ireland can exploit this by overloading the short side, or by feinting to go open and then switching to the blind side, in the same manner that they did against New Zealand:
If May is forced into a tricky situation where he has to defend a 2-on-1, he’ll more than likely make the wrong decision and allow an Irish winger or back rower to break down the touch line.
On the far side, Jack Nowell’s habit of tackling high, coupled with Slade’s aforementioned lack of size, can be taken advantage of by Jacob Stockdale. If Ireland have Aki and Ringrose run decoy unders lines at Farrell and Tuilagi to narrow them and prevent them from drifting across to support their three-quarter line in making a tackle, Slade and Ashton can be isolated.
Having Stockdale lurk in behind Ringrose and then run an arc around his outside shoulder while the Irish centres commit Farrell and Tuilagi would provide him with the perfect opportunity to have a cut at the seam between Slade and Ashton. We’ve seen similar plays from Ireland yielding benefits recently:
Schmidt has a reputation for reusing old moves with slight adjustments, and the one shown above is tailor-made for the defensive shortcomings of Slade and Ashton, and with his big frame, Stockdale is certain to win collisions against either of them if they have to tackle him one-on-one. Of course, that depends on Ireland moving Stockdale over to the right-hand side at times, but we’ve seen wingers swap positions during games before under Schmidt.
Injury woes at scrum-half aside, Ireland’s squad is in rude health at the moment, and on paper and form, are deserved favourites, but Jones always has a trick or two up his sleeve. The English head coach is an expert at cajoling a performance out of his players (not to mention riling the opposition camp to the point of frustration), and his teams don’t do meek defeats. Club form counts for very little in this tournament, and every member of England’s matchday squad will play to their full potential.
A passionate yet measured display from Schmidt’s side was more than enough to win in Twickenham last year, but you get the feeling that if this game is in any way close going into the final quarter, England might just sneak it. Ireland have to be ruthless with their try-scoring chances in a match that is guaranteed to have its fair share of fireworks, because their visitors will have no qualms about stealing a win at the death.