By Tadhg Peavoy
Nobody has given Ireland a hope this weekend at Twickenham; and that is just the way Joe Schmidt and his army will want it.
Despite protestations to the contrary, the concept that Ireland are now a team that prosper as favourites does not always ring true, and the debunking of that myth was most in evidence against Los Pumas at the Rugby World Cup. Sometimes, a revert to type following a setback can galvanise a side and enable them to discover a new well of promise from within.
Ireland are in the process of such an internal investigation. It began against Wales, and took a step back against France. But to suggest that an international side can reinvigorate themselves in a fortnight of Test matches is foolish in the extreme. Such endeavour requires time – and crucially patience – and Ireland should be afforded the room for both.
Two back-to-back Six Nations titles was superb reward for the kick-chase, narrow game, that Schmidt crafted as a gameplan of choice for his warriors. Now, as that gameplan is refined, added to, and opened up, to include a repertoire of finesse that relies on more than three-ruck rotations, there will be shots fired and missed on the battlefield – Paris saw that in evidence.
This weekend in London, with Ireland deemed by virutally all to be inferior, is a wonderful opportunity in adversity. Schmidt’s team can play with a freedom that comes through an underdog mentality. If they do, they will raise eyebrows with a performance that contradicts the naysayers.
Cries for change within the Ireland setup from the media and public since the hammering to Argentina back at the RWC have been at 140 decibels and Schmidt has decided that time for change is now (although that most certainly has nothing to do with any journalist’s opinion).
The introduction of Stuart McCloskey, Josh van der Flier and Ultan Dillane (on the bench) are three gifts of change that light up the Ireland team sheet for cavalier lovers of attack-minded rugby.
Ireland are likely to play much the same as they did against Wales and France, which is ball-in-hand and with an attempt to take ball at the opposition. What the McCloskey and Henshaw partnership potentially adds is a focal point in midfield for Ireland to use as a launch pad for attack off the back three and loose runners. Henshaw and Jared Payne offer huge solidity in the centre, but have never given a tingle of anticipation going forward in offence.
The hope is that McCloskey and Henshaw will have an X-factor together that will ignite in their first 80 minutes side by side. If that proves to be the case, the reintroduction of Payne, this time at fullback, for round four, and the continuation of McCloskey and Henshaw in the middle of the park, is one that opens up a whole new tin of possibilties.
Add to Saturday’s mix the introduction of Simon Zebo – a player who has so much yet to give in an Ireland jersey – off the bench and there is a heady mix of attack on display for Ireland.
Bolster that with CJ Stander and Josh van der Flier’s power and youth in the back row, and Cian Healy and Ultan Dillane’s inclusion on the bench, and one can clearly see a squad being built for ball-playing rugby.
The returning Mike Ross at tighthead also adds a vital cog to Ireland’s set up. Ross has been the most consistent performer of the Schmidt era, and a player so underestimated it is shameful. The calmness and power he brings to the set piece is a game changing element to an Ireland team.
In addition, Donnacha Ryan’s inclusion at lock brings the kind of doggedness Ireland have lacked in the brief period since Paul O’Connell’s exit from the scene. It is a huge opportunity for the Munster lock to prove he is the obvious successor.
But England do present a formidable challenge. In terms of form, the team from Britain is flying far higher. Two comforatable wins over Scotland and Italy has the Red Rose blooming under Eddie Jones, and historically a record of five wins in the last six against Ireland gives European rugby’s traditional powerhouse the psychological advantage.
As always, the battle up front against the English will be brutal. Their pack is almost invaribaly teak tough and the likes of Joe Marler, Dylan Hartley and Billy Vunipola continue that fine tradition in the pack on Saturday.
Rugby, a complicated sport by its very nature of rules and regulations, has some very simple tenets at its core. Winning the forward battle and allowing your backs an opportunity to express themselves is one of the most truthful elements to a beautiful game. England have always based their style on being able to do just that against any team and Ireland’s attempt to spoil that platform on Saturday is the key to victory.
For outside the pack there is much to exploit. Ben Youngs, although a fine player in offence, is weak in defence. The George Ford/Owen Farrell combination at 10 and 12 is unproven and Jonathan Joseph is prone to error in defence at 13. As is Mike Brown at 15.
If Ireland win the forward battle, their backs will, against all odds, win the war.
However, if Ireland’s pack, the tight five in particular, fail to fire, then England will dominate possession and their backs will find chinks in Ireland’s rearguard at least twice, which will be enough for victory in what is likely to be a tight battle.
The game is a mouthwatering prospect, with both sides desperate for victory.
Verdict: Ireland by five.
England: Mike Brown, Anthony Watson, Jonathan Joseph, Owen Farrell, Jack Nowell, George Ford, Ben Youngs; Joe Marler, Dylan Hartley (captain), Dan Cole, Maro Itoje, George Kruis, Chris Robshaw, James Haskell, Billy Vunipola.
Replacements: Jamie George, Mako Vunipola, Paul Hill, Courtney Lawes, Jack Clifford, Danny Care, Elliot Daly, Alex Goode.
Ireland: Rob Kearney, Andrew Trimble, Robbie Henshaw, Stuart McCloskey, Keith Earls, Jonathan Sexton, Conor Murray; Jack McGrath, Rory Best, Mike Ross, Donnacha Ryan, Devin Toner, CJ Stander, Josh van der Flier, Jamie Heaslip (captain).
Replacements: Richardt Strauss, Cian Healy, Nathan White, Ultan Dillane, Rhys Ruddock, Eoin Reddan, Ian Madigan, Simon Zebo.
Referee: Romain Poite.