When you suffer consecutive bad losses against the same opponent in any sport, the biggest mistake you can make is refusing to acknowledge your shortcomings because of the pain that comes with doing so. When this happens, players and teams stop striving to improve and it leads to a vicious cycle of performance levels that keep spiralling downwards. If Ireland are to have a chance at beating this excellent English side, they need to take a hard look at where they went wrong against them over the last two years.
Ireland’s one-out carrying brought them success in the past, but it doesn’t work against England anymore. Their pack is too big and their defence too suffocating, so attempting to bludgeon them is ill-advised. There are other issues that Ireland must address to make this game more of a contest, but asking different questions of the English defence than the ones they did in February is paramount to them mounting a serious challenge on Saturday.
Changing The Picture
When Ireland last travelled to Twickenham, they couldn’t find any space to work with in the English defence until the result was beyond doubt. A lot of that had to do with them being taken apart up front by the English pack, but they were too easy to read once the ball went past first-receiver:
Against Wales, Ireland mixed up their attack nicely, catching the Welsh defence off-guard with clever interplay at first-receiver, varying their options and changing direction unexpectedly, with two passages standing out.
In the 13th minute, they were on the front foot after some dominant carries from their forwards, but instead of insisting on going same-way, Johnny Sexton threw a deft inside pass to Andrew Porter (using Gareth Davies’ rush off the line against him), with Jamison Gibson-Park then sniping on the subsequent phase (taking advantage of the fact that Dan Biggar had already turned towards Sexton) before Peter O’Mahony picked and drove while the Welsh defence was resetting:
Then in the 29th minute, they did the unexpected again by switching the direction of the attack after Robbie Henshaw had made a big gain in midfield:
You can see the Welsh defenders folding quickly around the corner once Henshaw makes the inroad, and Gibson-Park initially feigns to attack the right side of the breakdown by looking in that direction before going the other way. Quinn Roux knocks the ball on, but if he had held the pass, Ireland had acres of space to exploit due to the Welsh defenders overloading on the far side.
Ireland will be hoping to replicate these kinds of attacking sequences against England because they are the best way of countering what England do off the ball. Aggressive line speed and collision dominance are cornerstones John Mitchell’s defence, but you can’t race off the mark if you’re not sure what the opposition are going to do. Having to change direction suddenly is not what a heavyset forward pack want, either, so if Ireland can keep them moving constantly, it will eventually disconcert them.
The injury to Johnny Sexton is a major blow to Ireland in terms of their ability to pull the English defence out of shape. Ross Byrne is a well-established player at club level, but a novice international 10, and not at same level as Sexton when it comes to taking the ball to the line. All the same, he has no shortage of attacking threats around him, especially the Irish centre partnership, who will have a size advantage over their opposite numbers in the absence of Manu Tuilagi.
If Byrne can consistently make the right decisions with ball in hand, Ireland’s attack might run smoother than expected with him at the helm, even if he doesn’t attract much attention from defenders himself. He doesn’t have fond memories of Twickenham, but Jamison Gibson-Park starting at 9 could make a world of difference to his performance levels. Byrne is familiar with him from lining out alongside him at club level, and Gibson-Park’s sniping threat will allow his out-half to have more time on the ball.
Variation in attack will be a non-factor in this fixture, though, if Ireland can’t go toe-to-toe with England in the forwards, something they have been unable to do lately. Billy Vunipola in particular has been highly influential in this facet of the game, with the Irish pack failing to stop him in his tracks. The English number eight has been the best number eight on the planet for quite some time now, and Ireland have had plenty of experience of him, so there was no excuse for giving him the run of the park when they last faced him:
South Africa managed to shut him down in Tokyo last year by committing more than one defender to him and drilling him in the tackle when the opportunity presented itself, and the Irish pack could do worse than follow their example:
In saying that, there’s more to defending against a player of Vunipola’s stature than staying connected and making your tackles; you have to make it personal. Andy Farrell has selected the biggest pack available to him, which should go a long way towards nullifying Vunipola, but if Ireland can’t contain him by half-time, they can bring Will Connors off the bench to chop him down. The Leinster flanker did a brilliant job of stopping Vunipola in his tracks back in September, and although it wasn’t the winning of that quarter-final, he still prevented the Saracens talisman from cutting loose.
Iain Henderson is another player who will have an important role to play on Saturday in the physical stakes. The Ulster captain and Dan Leavy were both unavailable when Ireland went to Twickenham at the end of February, and their absences were notable. Bar a few exceptions, the English forwards won the collisions with room to spare, and without two of their most dynamic ball-carriers, the intensity that was required from the Irish pack to at least be on par with them was absent:
Devin Toner has been a brilliant servant to Irish rugby, with an impressive body of work behind him, but Henderson’s aggressive physicality around the park was key to Ireland’s last victory over England:
With Leavy in the process of returning from a serious knee injury, it is vital that Henderson makes a massive impact when he is brought into the fray. James Ryan’s athleticism and Quinn Roux’s horsepower are going to be crucial for Ireland, but if they are going to beat England, they need to keep their intensity raised for the full 80, and Henderson can be a phenomenal physical tone-setter when he is on form.
England’s second row stocks have been diminished with Courtney Lawes’ injury and George Kruis’ move to Japan, so they won’t have the same power output across the 80 minutes that they had at the end of February. Playing against England seems to bring out the best in Henderson, but if he has one of his off-days and produces a lethargic, unimpactful performance, Ireland won’t be able to cope with England in the final quarter.
Ireland struggled badly under the high ball and in their general coverage of the backfield in Twickenham back in February, and a lot of it had to do with Jordan Larmour. There is no doubting the Leinster flyer’s ability with ball in hand, but he has yet to convince as an international-standard full-back, and England targeted him from the off:
With Owen Farrell, Henry Slade, Jonny May, Elliot Daly and George Ford all in their matchday squad, it would be foolish not to expect England to roll this tactic out again, given the inexperience that Ireland have in the back three that Andy Farrell has selected.
However, Hugo Keenan’s selection at 15 against Wales in the injury-enforced absence of Jacob Stockdale provided Ireland with a level of security in the backfield that they were lacking in the aftermath of Rob Kearney’s retirement from Test rugby:
With Keith Earls on the right wing, I think Ireland could very well turn what was a weakness in their last clash with England into a strength and look to put Elliot Daly under scrutiny in the air. The England 15 is a converted winger/centre and he has established himself as one of the top players in his position in the world, but there are still games where he doesn’t quite look the part, and he won’t have the same height/skill advantage over his opposite number on Saturday as he did over Larmour.
Going by the evidence of this year’s Six Nations, fielding kicks is still something Daly can have difficulty with. France and Wales both tested him with high-hanging, cross-field kicks and he was found wanting in both fixtures:
Wales got a huge return from making it their business to bombard Daly with kicks in their World Cup warm-up fixture in Cardiff last year, and considering that that it is one of Ross Byrne’s strengths (and also the selection of Jonathan Joseph on the right wing), I wouldn’t put it past Ireland to do the same. Repeating a tactic can wear it out if you don’t vary what you are doing, but if Ireland get change out of it early on, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t do it throughout Saturday’s game.
The arrogance that Eddie Jones has instilled in his charges is unpalatable to say the least, but it has probably brought out the best in them performance-wise. I doubt they are overly concerned with anyone else’s opinion of them, but Ireland can use that as extra motivation. They need to play angry without boiling over because England are not going to be beaten easily, particularly on home soil.
There’s a valid argument that emotional energy is not something any team should need to win, and while Ireland sides were guilty of this for a long time, sometimes it’s critical to beating a strong opponent. No one complains about Ireland’s victories over England in 2007, 2011 or 2018, and all three were built on high levels of passion from the men in green. If these types of performances can’t be backed up in the following game, then it’s a problem, but competency isn’t going to be enough to knock England over.
‘Going to the well’ is an expression that makes many an Irish fan groan because of its overuse in the George Hook era of punditry, but Ireland won’t win on Saturday by just being clever or accurate. This is an England team that were rampant in their run up to the RWC 2019 final, and it’s going to take a special performance to beat them. The pain of Ireland’s recurring defeats to the Red Rose needs to be channelled correctly because they owe them one.