Had Ireland not conceded a red card against Wales and then played Eddie Jones’ side when they were finding their footing, this fixture probably wouldn’t instil the same sense of foreboding for Ireland, but unfortunately for Andy Farrell’s team, they have to go toe-to-toe with England right when they have rediscovered their best form. The victory over Scotland was vital for Ireland’s morale, but the manner of it didn’t inspire hope, and certainly hasn’t generated anywhere near the kind of momentum you need to beat a superpower like the 2021 edition of England.
All the same, England are not without their blemishes, and had to conjure up a late try to get themselves over the line against France, but the fact that they have made huge strides in rounding out their game since losing to Scotland will be of greatest concern to Ireland. This progression in their game plan is a representation of the desire for self-improvement that has always been a hallmark of Eddie Jones’ coaching, and Ireland now have to account for a lethal attack as well as a suffocating kicking game this weekend.
In spite of the advances that England have made with ball in hand, Ireland’s main focus in this game will be how they go about unlocking them. The failure to make inroads against the Red Rose must weigh on their conscience heavily, but despite the tries England have been leaking recently, they will be highly motivated on Saturday, as they have been for this fixture since letting Ireland win a Grand Slam on their home patch in 2018. Given that England have already shipped two losses in this tournament, Ireland can expect them to go full-bore this weekend, even if they are playing away from home.
There is a common misconception that a blitz defence is impenetrable, and although it is harder to make ground against a rush defensive line than it is against a passive drift, blitzing is not without its drawbacks. Ireland have been guilty, however, of falling into the trap of trying to outdo England in the close-quarters exchanges before flinging the ball out wide, but to no avail. It’s high time that they changed tack against this particular opponent because their attacking strategy has asked little or nothing of England’s defensive system for over two years now.
One of the issues that Ireland have had in attack this year has been the hesitancy at the base of the ruck. In some cases, they seem to be unsure of the decision, and in others, the execution of the pass looks to be delayed:
I think this might actually work in Ireland’s favour against England if they can utilise it correctly because the English defenders close to the breakdown can be overzealous in their efforts to pressurise the opposition attack.
Ireland taking a step at 9 before passing in order to draw the hyper-aggressive English defence up and then out will have a knock-on stuttering effect on the English fringe defenders where they race forward but then have to turn and fan across, and the half-second that it takes to do this opens up space further out, something that happened regularly when Eddie Jones’ side faced off with the Azzurri:
If Conor Murray takes a step and then passes in behind a screen of forwards to Johnny Sexton, Ireland could get a quick transfer of the ball across the pitch, and if they can move the ball beyond the English edge defender by doing this, it can cause all sorts of disarray, as we saw against Wales:
Screen plays and misdirection in front of the edge defender have also put England at sixes and sevens, with France profiting greatly from using these types of ploys:
Ireland’s attempts at loop plays haven’t been overly effective lately (mainly because everyone knows they are coming), but if they can use this tactic wider out, it should yield a return.
Robbie Henshaw being selected in place of the injured Garry Ringrose means that Ireland have a more physical (albeit less subtle) threat at 13 that is guaranteed to attract attention, and if they can use him as a decoy to draw the English edge defender in the same way that France did in the clip above, then it should create space in the 15-metre channel for them.
In terms of singling out a specific weak link in this England team, George Ford is an obvious target. Getting at him has been easier said than done for Ireland lately, but when you consider the yardage that Scotland made by taking advantage of the space around the 10 channel in Round 1 when the sturdier Owen Farrell was playing at out-half, it is definitely worth Ireland’s while to have another look at Ford in these scenarios:
Ireland haven’t really let their wingers charge at the 10 channel at full-tilt, instead occasionally using them in this position as a link between the pack and the out-half. This game provides the perfect opportunity to tweak this, and if they stand Henshaw or Bundee Aki in front of Owen Farrell in order to lead England away from Ford before releasing an inside pass to an onrushing Jacob Stockdale, a clean break is likely.
In general, Ireland would be well-served by following Wales’ example by keeping the ball in play; the match fitness of the Saracens forwards is poor due to their relegation from the Gallagher Premiership, and this is the reason why they are giving away cheap penalties and switching off at crucial moments. When you add in the kick-space England leave behind their front line and their vulnerability to blind side attacks, there are definite weaknesses in John Mitchell’s defensive set-up, but it remains to be seen if Ireland can remember to exploit them in the white heat of a Test match.
With regards to the other side of the ball, the Irish management will have a hard time devising a defensive strategy for this game because England have started to throw the ball out wide more frequently in this Championship. This may owe more to Manu Tuilagi’s absence than anything else, but England are now spreading the ball wide to their wingers and reaping the rewards:
At the same time, they are still capable of punishing opponents for leaving space in the backfield, with the dual kicking options of George Ford and Owen Farrell allowing them to always have one out-half on their feet scanning the space in behind the front line of the defence:
Jacob Stockdale’s struggles in this area have been well-documented by now, but Ireland will be hoping that he has used the time he has spent out injured to learn from the mistakes he has made in the backfield. Wales dealt with England’s territorial play brilliantly in Round 3 by having Josh Adams and Louis Rees-Zammit alternate between staying up in the line and dropping back depending on what picture England presented to them, but these judgement calls are not easy to make.
Ireland have done different parts of the game well in different matches, but have yet to fully combust. Their lineout defence and scrum have been weapons for them (one penalty concession against Scotland aside), their attacking continuity against Italy (and Wales and Scotland in places) was good and their first-phase strike plays against France produced line-breaks. Their defence has been somewhat 50/50, though, and the quality of their kicking out of hand has been inconsistent, so overall, it’s hard to say that they are a better team than they were last year.
It’s all quite reminiscent of the 2011 Six Nations, where Ireland spluttered along for four games in a row, and faith in their ability to function as a collective reached a low point. That year, they did end up putting it all together, smashing England on the final day of the Championship, but there’s no evidence that the same will happen this time round. In saying that, Ireland’s players and coaches have been confident that they are progressing towards something special, and you would hope for their sake that it materialises this Saturday.
Detailed analysis of England will be useless if Ireland can’t match them for intensity up front, and James Ryan is an enormous loss in this regard. Jack Conan’s selection compensates for what Ireland lose in open play with Ryan’s absence, but diminishes their defensive lineout, too. There is bound to be an emotional reaction to CJ Stander’s retirement announcement from the whole squad, but it might not be enough for them to avoid another learning experience against a team who have been a roadblock to them pushing on to the next level since the beginning of 2020.