Martin Johnson maintains that it is a great compliment that teams now pay more attention to England’s strengths than in previous years. And whilst bookmakers may be wrong to make England clear favourites, Ireland must look to recent weeks to see that when challenged, Johnson’s men can look devoid of ideas. France and Scotland have both dismantled elements of England’s game, but both fell to losses because they did not fully address their own. Below I outline five key areas for Ireland to target if they are to wreck England’s chances of a Grand Slam and claim a famous victory.
Pressure Ben Youngs
This plan should be clear to Ireland. Whilst many felt that Ben Youngs’ performances against Wales and Italy were good, if not his best when compared with his match-winning displays for England and Leicester, his injection of pace and good service allowed Toby Flood the time and space to run the English back line superbly. Against France and Scotland when Youngs had far less time he succumbed to the pressure. The Irish often do not clear out fully at the break down and tend to wrestle and hold, but the forwards need to march through the area and immediately on to the England scrum half. Youngs’ service can be decidedly shaky when he feels rushed, and that imprecision between scrum half and fly half can be hugely detrimental to the side’s attacking options. The Leicester scrum half is still inexperienced, and Ireland must target him.
Utilise the strength of the Irish back row
Ireland need to play to their strengths and the back row is one of the few places where they hold a clear advantage over England. David Wallace is the linking, ball-scavenging number 7 that England crave, the blindside Sean O’Brien has overcome a difficult start to be one of the finds of the tournament, whilst in Jamie Heaslip they possess one of the best number 8s in world rugby. Flankers Tom Wood and James Haskell have been some of the better performers in the competition for England, but arguably the back row has not had the right balance of late, with Haskell acknowledging the failure in their job of ruling the breakdown against Scotland. Wallace’s work at the tackle area will be key, but O’Brien and Heaslip are incredibly powerful and dynamic ball carriers and if they can pick and go around the ruck, where England have been surprisingly weak, then the men in white will be kept on the back foot. Heaslip looked out of sorts against Wales, perhaps a testimony to his lack of game time after injury, but expect him to take on his English counterpart Nick Easter.
Select Ronan O’Gara at fly half
OK, this first point has failed even before the match has even started. But the game O’Gara offers can still be played. On form, the Munster fly half is the best tactical kicker in the northern hemisphere, and to prevent England from gaining momentum Ireland will need to continually pin them back into their own 22. When attempting to clear their lines from deep, England have often looked fully capable of causing their own downfall. Their new expansive approach will dictate that fly half Toby Flood’s first thought is to attack but, when facing an on-rushing Irish defence, his slight delay will mean a hurried kick. Without Mike Tindall as a second kicking option, this could prove problematic for England. Jonathan Sexton’s kicking is not as astute as O’Gara’s, but he should not be underestimated.
Target the outside centre channel
Matt Banahan at outside centre is still an experiment. His club team Bath continue to prefer him on the wing, and in his only real outing of note in the centres against Samoa last November, Banahan was exposed. Many English fans would despair at Tindall’s inclusion, but it was a clear reminder that the outside centre role is as much about defensive alignment as it is about breaking the gain line. It is here that Banahan may suffer. As something of a juggernaut in midfield, Banahan’s acceleration is poor and against Brian O’Driscoll he is coming up against someone who mastered the art of this position many years ago. Ireland must target this area, not least because there are still question marks over Banahan’s tackling technique. I have mentioned earlier that I felt O’Gara should start, but Sexton’s creativity may be useful in giving O’Driscoll and an onrushing Keith Earls from full back the space and match up against the centre-cum-wing from Jersey.
Bribe the referee
Just kidding of course. But Ireland have been missing out on the luck that they supposedly, as a nation, inherit. With Sexton at fly half Ireland may be prepared to chance their arm on Saturday. Ireland troubled France most when they played at a high tempo and they should do the same against England. It may be risky, but the current law book lends itself to retaining the ball and the ultimate rewards may be greater than the risk. In international rugby you make your own luck, and it’s not like Ireland aren’t due some.
By Tom James