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Monday 5 December 2016

Ireland cannot afford to sit on defence

If Schmidt's men attack England where they are vulnerable, they can win match

New Ireland cap Stuart McCloskey at squad training in Carton House.Photo: Matt Browne / Sportsfile.
New Ireland cap Stuart McCloskey at squad training in Carton House.Photo: Matt Browne / Sportsfile.

It's make and break for Ireland's defence of their Six Nations title this weekend, with just a slim hope that if they beat England at home and other results fall their way, there's still an outside chance they can still grab something tangible from this year's competition.

This game should not be just about winning, but rather about development too, both in terms of future talent and also about the direction that Ireland want to play.

Ireland certainly won't lack motivation against their old foe, and if everything clicks into place on the day then they still have the talent to win.

In that regard, I'm glad that Ulster's in-form centre Stuart McCloskey is given a chance, with incumbent centre Jarrod Payne out.

In my opinion, Schmidt should also have considered the form of Craig Gilroy and even Galway's Matt Healy to shake things up and keep England guessing. I

Robbie Henshaw has been moved into the number 13 position to allow McCloskey take a more familiar role at inside centre. Granted it's an inexperienced international partnership, but it is also an exciting one for the future and gives Ireland a powerful centre pairing with both men well over 6ft4 and 16 stone in weight, just the type of muscular attack to angle back down the English 10-12 channel, where England's out half George Forde is brave but fragile.

Attacking

Forde will not relish these two big men attacking his shoulder. It is also a chance for Schmidt to use his pop runners inside and outside these two players, almost like the All Blacks often use their loose forwards running lines off the likes of Ma'a Nonu and Sonny Bill Williams.

It is in this channel that England are potentially strong and weak. Strong in attack, given Forde and Farrell are playmakers and effective passers of the ball, capable of bringing England's exciting and dynamic young strike force into play out wide. Weak in that they are still essentially both outhalfs and defensively largely untested at this level.

My game plan would be to send your best ball carriers just outside England's powerful but slow loose forward trio and down that 10-12 channel in first phase possession, create quick ruck ball from there and then attack in the wider channels, where hopefully the likes of Henshaw, McCloskey, CJ Stander, Jamie Heaslip and others can tie in a couple of the English backs in defence and create the desired mis-matches?

It's not often that Ireland can draw a match with Wales, lose on a rainy afternoon in Paris to France by a single point and yet everybody is already at the post mortem stage. Years ago a single digit loss in Paris would have been considered a moral victory.

Having said that, the main problem with this present Irish team is its inability to score tries, and when we see teams like France more or less saying "let them have the ball, we will just defend", it means that Ireland has to start converting more line breaks or promising ventures into the opposition with more scores.

For too long Ireland have been overly reliant on the kicking boot of Johnny Sexton, but that needs to change. Despite criticism before the World Cup that Ireland were overly conservative, they still haven't found a creative edge to its play. They will need that against England.

This is the one game where Joe Schmidt needs to find a way around the opposition and not through them. England rely on a power game, and Ireland struggle against teams they cannot dominate physically, so Ireland need to use width and superior fitness to continually stretch the point of attack.

Eddie Jones will not attempt to play an expansive game against Ireland - why would he? His approach will be the same as it has been since the start of this competition, in that he will rely on his ponderous yet powerful back row to grind out the first 60 minutes in the set plays, scrums and collision areas before allowing a more dynamic bench to finish off the struggle.

Schmidt needs to throw caution to the wind and look to finish games as they have started them, with pace and passion.

Master race

Eddie Jones has not created the rugby master race in two weeks, and for long periods in their gamesagainst Scotland and Italy they looked far from the all-running game-plan Jones would like to implement.

Ireland has to seek a way to neutralise the English power game, because for 50 minutes last week Italy actually looked the more inventive side.

England's weakness is in their pre-occupation up front with brawn. They build a lot of their play around a destructive rather than a constructive loose forward trio. No 8 Billy Vumipola is a huge man but he likes to operate in a small radius close to the set plays.

The secret is to identify where Vunipla is standing and drop the ball into space rather than into his hands. Make big men turn, and with good chasers moving up in a line then teams can turn defence into attack.

The return of Mike Ross will help anchor the Irish scrum and Ireland must start this area on top or at least equal.

Joe Schmidt is a master tactician so he knows going head to head against a more powerful pack is rugby suicide. Better to use Ireland's big backline to punch holes in England's defence then speed the game up with the phases that follow.

Stretch the English back, move them from side to side, vary the lineouts, kick-offs and kicks to touch. Harry and hustle at every opportunity, and keep the pedal to the metal when they are in the English 22. If Ireland can do that, this English team can be taken.

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