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Saturday 16 December 2017

Brent Pope: Ireland need to avoid English battle

Exploiting Ireland's aerial supremacy central to victory for Schmidt's men

Ireland's Paul O'Connell in action during squad training
Ireland's Paul O'Connell in action during squad training

England come to the Aviva Stadium with a pretty decent record in Dublin, having not tasted defeat here since 2011. But that Brian O'Driscoll inspired 24-8 Grand-Slam Stopper still haunts them. At least psychologically.

If anything Ireland will be slight favourites for this match, despite claiming that England was the only side to defeat them last year. Ireland has always hated the tag of being called favourites, preferring the underdog approach, but much has changed over the years and this weekend their ultra-positive coach Joe Schmidt will be saying this " We are the defending Six Nations champions, we are currently nine games unbeaten, we are ranked above England and most significantly of all we are on our own home patch."

If Ireland can beat a full strength South African side fresh from a victory over the All Blacks a few weeks previous, and a Wallaby side seeking revenge for a loss to France a week earlier in Paris then Ireland can certainly beat an injury plagued England. Will it be hard? Absolutely, but Ireland will want to keep the winning picture. This game will be won or lost as much in the mind as it is in the matter.

This crucial game against England (clearly the two best sides in this year's competition) also acts as a major barometer as to where Ireland will pitch themselves in this year's World Cup. It's a constant source of deliberation for coaches in a World Cup year. All rugby nations know that building confidence and momentum is huge, none more than England who often cite a successful Six Nations campaign and a winning All Black Tour as one of the reasons for their historic World Cup win in Australia. But the dilemma is while you want to continue winning, do you show too much of your hand early on? Just look back at Ireland in 2007, success in the previous Six Nations then complete World Cup capitulation months later? In this regard Stuart Lancaster is in a unique position especially given that with all England's injury list his World Cup squad may be miles away from the team that actually faces Ireland this weekend. Conversely apart from the injured Jamie Heaslip and perhaps a few fringe players like Keith Earls and Luke Fitzgerald (unlucky not to be starting) the Irish coach has nearly a full deck to select from. So the important question is how will Ireland win this match?

Schmidt's success has been based on tailoring specific game-plans to beat the opposition. Schmidt's attention to detail and his ability to get his players to play to a structure that they all buy into is well documented both at Leinster and now Ireland. Gone are the days where Ireland plays it just one way. For instance against Italy the Irish kicked a lot more, they also stopped Italy's key ball carriers runners like Sergio Parisse at source, and then found the necessary gaps as the Italians wilted. A week later against France Ireland changed again, this time starting the game by holding onto possession and attacking from deep in an effort to tire the massive and unfit French forwards, again it proved to be decisive, especially in the first half.

England's win in Cardiff was massive; to come from 10-0 down and physically dominate Wales at home was a testament to England's main strengths ie their physical power up front both in attack and defence.

Against that background England creaked against Italy at times, but that may not be such a bad thing for Lancaster as it would have been a timely reminder as what they may expect in Dublin.

England have also looked to tighten up their aerial defence by releasing speedster Johnny May back to his club, and replacing him with the more defensively reliable yet unpredictable and exciting Jack Nowell.

With Mike Brown and May out, England are suddenly very inexperienced and youthful in one of the most important triumphant on the field. Without Brown England loses his brilliant counter-attacking options, for that reason alone he is a huge loss.

For his part Schmidt would have seen a controlled first half performance against France, but a second half that's saw the Irish scrum dismantled at times, and the Irish defence fully tested as the big French carriers came more and more into play.

Strengths

Ireland's main strengths are an aerial supremacy that can potentially use five players in the backline that are well over 6ft tall and have played fullback at some stage in their career.

We saw how Johnny Sexton used this aerial supremacy from the restarts against France, using both sides of the field to great effect.

Ireland also has a more mobile back row than England as a unit, Ireland use the wider channels more effectively than the likes of England's powerhouse Billy Vunipola, who whist extremely dangerous tends to operate 'Dean Richards style' close in.

Ireland has the best poaching lineout in the world, and a maul that uses this out of touch ball exceptionally well.

But Ireland must definitely avoid the game being played close in ie in and around the tramlines or "Fatman's Alley" as it was called in my day, as this is where England's "great whites" attack best and Ireland's main weakness is still that they can struggle against the bigger more physically imposing teams.

Despite beating South Africa earlier this year, there were still times, especially in the first half of that match when Ireland were under serious pressure as they were in the last 30 minutes against France.

Ireland's scrum can also be a bit up and down at this level, especially at tight-head where teams are now starting to target Mike Ross's age. Schmidt may just have to go to his front row bench quicker than he did against France.

That is before the damage is done.

England's defence relies on fast and even line speed, so I fully expect Sexton to vary his kicking game again, as he did against France, and to bring the cross-kick or wipers-kick into play thus using his fast chasing backline to pressure the new-look English back three and use a world class aerial assault from the likes of Tommy Bowe and Rob Kearney.

Ireland are confident and if they use all the advantages they have, coupled with their confidence then there is every reason to expect a glorious home win.

But play into England's hand in an arm wrestle type of game played up front and they may have a tough day at the office. Still, Ireland to win with a score to the good.

 

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