The fascinating aspect of England’s long unbeaten run is the mental fortitude they can now call on at critical moments
Hindsight has so many absolutes, especially in sport.
This week there’s been absolutely conclusive evidence England, under Eddie Jones, is a runaway juggernaut, with size and threat everywhere. Ireland as a blunt attacking weapon, without the guile and creativity to score tries is another absolute.
It’s worth remembering a week ago George North was a busted flush, a player regretting the move to Northampton, a winger with a career on the skids. It’s not so absolute now.
There is a valid point, a legitimate debate to be made about both England and Ireland’s attacks but neither can be fully interrogated at the moment. Anyone who believes they can conclusively call tomorrow’s Six Nations climax at the Aviva Stadium is either of soothsayer or finds their wisdom at the bottom of a lucky bag. There are no lucky bag solutions in international sport, no matter how much the keyboard warriors demand them of Joe Schmidt. Here, we are in the business of trying to be objective in how we discuss the merits of the Irish team.
The Murrayfield opener will still be the greater of the two losing disappointments in this championship. What has becoming manifestly clear is how extremely difficult it has become to win away from home in the Six Nations. Before I learned of the Irish team changes, I was firm such a trend would be upheld this weekend. With Conor Murray partnering Johnny Sexton at half-back, I don’t see England beating Ireland. Obviously now, the dynamic, all different sorts of dynamics have changed. That casts no aspersions whatsoever on Kieran Marmion. But it says everything about the importance of Conor Murray.
The obvious, and impressive, context for weighing up the England mindset, should be their sensational showing at home to Scotland a week ago. England have that capacity at home. The day I was captain, in 2008, we went 10-0 up and ended up being trimmed. The English ride the crest of a wave and things roll for them like no other team in the world.
But it won’t be that chariot in Dublin. Let’s not forget the last time they came to the Aviva, they got destroyed by Ireland. George Ford got rag-dolled by Johnny Sexton. England are better for sure with the ball behind the scrum, but the tempo of tomorrow’s game will be dictated by the cussedness of the Irish forwards, and how their English counterparts deal with that. Marler, Hartley, Cole, Lawes, Haskell? If the Irish eight are completely focused, they can handle that.
I repeat they can. This isn’t same old England. The fascinating aspect of their long unbeaten run is the mental fortitude they can now call on at critical moments. This world-record winning sequence is up there. We just don’t accept it because it’s England. So the visitors won’t have The Fear tomorrow. Ireland will, and that’s a good thing, as Wales proved last Friday. It will have been mentioned in Irish camp this week that England haven’t played New Zealand in that 19-match run. It is an astonishingly consistent sequence, but there’s no All Blacks in there.
Joe Schmidt will put the word ‘intensity’ everywhere around the players in camp. It’s correct to argue that had Rory Best’s ‘try’ been converted in Cardiff, Ireland were a point in front. But for too long in that game, there wasn’t enough dynamism in the Irish effort. You get an extra 2-3% out of everyone tomorrow and no-one is reaching for the handy debate about bluntness or lack of an edge, or Irish carries, or their footwork. I said on these pages if ever there was a time Wales would beat Ireland, it was last week. The surge the Welsh would have got from being only 3-0 down after a torrid first 20 minutes would have been electric. Ireland’s incredible start became an albatross around their necks, deflating to have a mere three points when they were so dominant.
Joe Schmidt has rightly been lauded for getting the very most out of this Irish group, so why now is it referred to as a negative? Eddie Jones is doing the exact same thing with England. He also has more devastating players behind the scrum at his disposal. But it is still the same group we see in the Champions Cup, and it’s a nonsensical approach to start deifying players because their jersey is white, with a red rose. If there are question marks over Kieran Marmion at nine, the England 10 George Ford is not beyond performance implosion either.
I must add my conviction regarding an Ireland win is weakened by the loss of Murray, not only for his attacking game but his defensive presence. England demolished a poor Scotland but they could have put 80 points on them. The ease with which they are ripping up teams compares favourably with Ireland’s struggles in Wales last Friday. When the Irish attack is stuck in neutral, that’s when I look in the rear-view mirror for Brian O’Driscoll. There isn’t an individual or collective flair in the Irish midfield like before. That’s got to be accepted. Schmidt is going with a direct style where everything is focused on winning collisions and getting over the gain line and making ruck ball available.
The players are good players, but there aren’t many standout operators there – there is no O’Driscoll nor O’Connell. Everyone speaks of the Leinster Academy and the talent coming through, but in what context are people speaking?
Are we talking coming through at world level or are we talking about lads doing well in Musgrave Park or the RDS on a Friday night?
It’s worlds apart, galaxies apart. It’s the same between Top 14 and international rugby – you couldn’t have a greater contrast.
Rain is in the forecast for Dublin tomorrow afternoon, some wind too, so Eddie Jones might get his much- anticipated high balls. Doubtless, England will come to play, they seem to have parked the propensity to bash their way to victory. Let’s see what Ireland have.
Amid all the drama over the ‘fusion’ between Racing 92 and Stade Francais this week, struggling Grenoble made the decision to dispense with Bernard Jackman as head coach. The only surprise is the timing – six games from the end of the season. Evidently, they wanted to move him on immediately. Players are powerful in France, this mightn’t happen in other countries, but if the president and the squad are at one on these matters, the clock is ticking.
It was a tough baptism as head coach for Bernard. He will undoubtedly learn from the extremely difficult challenge of his first top-flight coaching role. It will help his learning curve. Mike Prendergast will be part of the interim management team and the sense I get is Grenoble are making big efforts to keep him on the next management ticket.
This amalgamation of Stade and Racing was a bad rumour last Monday morning. Now it’s a different story a day here. For people at home to get a sense of it, you have to feel for the likes of Henry Chavauncy and Xavier Chauveau who have played with Racing from Under 6’s til now. Imagine someone like that from Munster being told you were joining forces with Leinster…