IS TODAY’S Ireland-England match a winner-takes-all showdown, an aperitif to the expected Grand Slam for the victors? The only answer is “yes”, at least if you read the Irish and English press, and never mind that another two rounds of matches are still to be played.
In fairness, this afternoon’s clash in Dublin involves the two best teams in the competition but quality alone doesn’t win matches. Given the wealth of world-class players at their disposal it is no great surprise to learn that Ireland have beaten England in six of their last ten meetings in the Six Nations, including two wins at Twickenham in 2006 and 2010 (Scotland last won in London back in 1983). What is a little surprising is that Ireland have not bested the men in white anywhere since 2011, losing the last three meetings.
England triumphed by just three points at Twickenham last season and Stuart Lancaster, who has yet to lose to Ireland, would give his right arm for the same result today. On paper, England have the stronger side but this game is played on the Aviva grass where Ireland tend to grow in stature. There is almost nothing between the teams in the betting markets and it looks like it will go down to the wire, but there are clear differences in their respective strengths and weaknesses which will ultimately decide today’s winner. Here are the key clashes which will decide the game:
Mike Ross v Joe Marler
The pair were club colleagues at Harlequins from 2006-09 but they appear on less than friendly terms these days. Quins and Leinster were drawn in the same European pool this season and played each other back to back, with honours even, one win apiece. The same could not be said for the set scrum in which England prop Marler bossed Ross to such an extent that Leinster dropped him for their final two European ties. If anyone has the hex on Ross it is the much improved Marler who will be licking his lips at the prospect of doing it all again.
Result: Clear England win unless the 35-year-old Ross has improved markedly of late.
Johnny Sexton v George Ford
Ford is the coming man, his boot as good as his excellent brain, and only off the tee does the English stand-off suffer the occasional wobble. But he is still learning his trade and Ireland will target him aggressively both in defence and attack. If Ford is the apprentice, Sexton is the master, a Lions hero and the best fly-half in Europe. If his forwards can stand up to the muscular English onslaught then Sexton ensures they will play in the right areas of the field. What he doesn’t have is much of a cutting edge in the midfield so don’t expect too much rugby from Ireland in their own half.
Result: Irish win, especially if this one is decided by the boot.
Choke tackle v driving maul
When Shaun Edwards starts bitching about something, as the Welsh assistant coach did last week about the choke tackle, then you know it is working well. Ireland’s defence coach Billy Kidd introduced the concept at the 2011 Rugby World Cup and the only surprise is that more teams do not follow their lead. England need to take contact low and on their own terms to avoid the indignity of a turnover. Their own not-so-secret weapon is equally useful. They will hope to out-muscle the Irish up front and if they get their driving maul set up properly (something they struggled to do against Italy) England will march upfield and milk the inevitable penalties all afternoon long.
Result: Ireland’s advantage given captain Paul O’Connell’s excellence at breaking up the opposition maul.
Rob Kearney v Alex Goode
Kearney is the angry man of Irish rugby so it’s probably just as well that the injured Mike Brown sits this one out or we’d have real pyrotechnics. In a close game both sides will go to the air. Kearney is the best fielder of the ball in Europe, thanks in part to his history in Gaelic football. He always gets off the ground. Alex Goode would be world class if he had a fifth gear but he is a smart and creative player with a good step. If the game breaks up late on, he will pop up at first receiver, especially if Ford is struggling. However, Goode is starting his first Test in two years and he is in between two inexperienced wingers in Anthony Watson and Jack Nowell.
Result: Ireland win, potentially a decisive one.
These are the tangibles but there are numerous intangibles that will play their part and the passion that Ireland bring in front of their own home crowd is such that it almost falls under the former category.
In the autumn Ireland beat South Africa and Australia at the Aviva and they are on a nine-match winning streak. The man who has masterminded that run is coach Joe Schmidt and he may prove the most influential character on the day.
Every team has weaknesses and England’s are not even that well hidden: an inexperienced back three, a slight fly-half, limited options at the lineout and a combustible hooker. It doesn’t sound much to go on but if anyone can exploit these cracks in England’s façade then the Kiwi coach is the man to do it.
On Schmidt’s watch Ireland have won 14 of 17 Tests (an 82 per cent success rate) and they have suffered just one loss in the Six Nations. They won’t want to double that tally today.