In the wider context of their overall Championship performance, this Sunday’s clash with England is a hinge game for Ireland. Momentum is essential for success in the Six Nations and if Ireland don’t go to the Stade de France brimming with the confidence that being unbeaten brings, it’s unlikely that they will knock over a French team who are on the up. Mercifully, though, this weekend’s home side appear to have hit the same kind of slump that Ireland experienced last year.
After getting into fifth gear for the majority of 2019, Eddie Jones’ team underperformed in the World Cup final, and have been off-colour in this Six Nations thus far. While the uninspiring nature of their win over Scotland can be attributed to the swirling winds and torrential rain in Murrayfield, they looked spooked against France. They still have quality throughout their roster, but you can only play poorly for so long before self-doubt creeps in.
Add to that the Saracens salary cap scandal and the injuries to the Vunipola brothers, and it becomes challenging to maintain a positive mindset. Jones’ comments in the media have backfired on him, and the belligerent post-match interview from Ellis Genge after scoring the winning try against Scotland gives an impression of a group of players and coaches who are under siege.
Both of Ireland’s meetings with England in 2019 saw them beaten senselessly by a team who were surging towards their peak. In the case of the World Cup warm-up game, the two sides were at different points in their preparations for Japan, but in each fixture, England set the physical tone early on with monster collisions from the Vunipolas and Tuilagi right on the gain line:
These were statement carries from a team who wanted to right the wrongs of their capitulation at the end of the 2018 Six Nations, and Ireland had no answer for them.
However, with both Vunipolas out of the picture, Manu Tuilagi playing a bit-part in this tournament due to a niggling injury and Jones’ insistence on selecting Tom Curry at number eight despite the excellent form of Nathan Hughes and Sam Simmonds (not to mention Alex Dombrandt taking European club rugby by storm this season), the efficacy of England’s attack has reduced significantly:]
Ireland should find them easier to contend with in defence than last year, but that doesn’t mean they should relax when England are in possession. Even when working with limited front-foot ball, Elliot Daly and Jonny May are capable of moments of individual brilliance and if create scores out of nothing do so on Sunday, the Twickenham crowd will be quick to get on Ireland’s backs.
The real challenge facing Ireland this weekend is trying to figure out where their point of attack should be. The size of their forwards and the aggressive nature of their defence makes it very difficult to go through or around England. A lot of this comes down to the volume and impact of the tackles from Sam Underhill and Tom Curry, who prevent opposition sides from gaining any sort of traction in phase play with dominant, driving hits:
The obvious choice would be to go after the diminutive George Ford, but England are well-aware of his defensive frailties and he usually has at least one forward babysitting him in defence.
I think Ireland’s best bet in this game would be to launch steeplers towards the right-hand side of the English backfield. Kicking to the most potent try-scorer in the tournament might sound foolish, but fielding high balls is not Jonny May’s forte, and without a veteran, aerially proficient player like Mike Brown alongside him, he doesn’t have a safety net when it comes to claiming garryowens:
Elliot Daly’s move to 15 at the end of 2018 gave England an extra dimension in attack, but as dangerous as he is with ball in hand, he’s not a natural full-back, and remains uncomfortable with the fundamentals of the position:
If Ireland can manage to get set-pieces in the right areas of the field by targeting May and Daly, their next step should be to go after the left edge of the English defensive line, as Manu Tuilagi’s propensity for shooting up out of the defensive line is both a strength and a weakness. The Leicester centre’s enthusiasm for racing off the mark is beneficial as it often results in him smashing his opposite number or intercepting the ball, but it also leaves a gap in the defensive line and space in behind:
Sharp changes of direction are not an enticing prospect when you are recovering from a groin injury, and with Owen Farrell being somewhat slow on the turn, Ireland would be wise to go after the space in behind the English midfield. Short-range kicks and deceptive screen plays are ideal for getting players past blitz defences, and even if those tactics don’t lead directly to tries, they will force England to reduce their line speed.
Further out, Jones’ selection of Jonathan Joseph at 11 is a curious one. He hasn’t started a game on the wing in seven years, so his positional sense is going to be off, and to make matters worse, he is a liability in defence. The Bath centre is classy in attack, but bad defensive reading and low intensity in the tackle have stopped him from nailing down a place in the England starting XV, and Ireland had a field day with him not too long ago:
If Ireland swap their wingers at various points in the match and have Jacob Stockdale run at Joseph one-on-one regularly, it’s doubtful that he will be able to cope with the Ulster winger’s physicality for the 80 minutes without either getting bounced out of the way or needing his teammates to help him put the ball-carrier to ground, thereby giving Ireland extra space on the next phase.
The problem with predicting how England will play on Sunday is that it is hard to know what can be taken from their first two games of this tournament in terms of meaningful analysis. We’re not sure yet if their below par performance against France was just on off-day or the beginning of a decline, and they beat Scotland in atrocious weather conditions by virtue of having a bigger pack and being more accurate in their kicking.
Ireland’s latest victory over England on their turf came at a time when the Red Rose were suffering from post-Lions tour fatigue, but this is one of the great rivalries of Test rugby. Two wins in Twickenham in the last decade tells you everything you need to know about how tough a place it is to go, and when Ireland have finished on the right side of the scoreboard, they have had to go to the well and play with incredible passion to do so. That should be easy for them to muster this Sunday because they are bound to be still hurting from the manner of their recent losses to England.
It’s unusual that an Englishman is being tasked with instilling a sense of pride in an Irish team, but Andy Farrell’s coaching philosophy is predicated on getting his players to go about their business with energy and zeal, and the Wales match was a case in point. It would also be a remarkable achievement for Farrell on a personal level if he could get one over on the Union that discarded him with such haste after RWC 2015 in his first visit to his nation’s home ground as an opposition head coach, so Ireland’s players and their coach have more than enough motivation for this one.