Ireland v England: "Skill, not savagery, and bit of drama is what we all want"
Ireland must avoid arm wrestle in our biggest gig, writes Brendan Fanning
It took the Scots a while to calm down after their controversial endgame against Wales in Murrayfield a fortnight ago.
And they may not have been enamoured of the mopping-up operation carried out by World Rugby last week, which did, however, contain a lovely line. It described how Law 5, which relates to when there is time to restart the game and when it's best to head for the hills, had just been clarified. And it was this: "part of a new, more agile law interpretation process."
We really like that one. When the laws look like they have been laid down for a different game altogether - because mostly they have - and your head is bursting at the prospect of a complete overhaul, then what's required is some 'agility'.
Rugby has never needed a bit of limbo dancing like it does now. Today's get-together in Lansdowne Road is its perfect illustration. For all of us, England at home is the biggest gig on the circuit, regardless of whether one or other is still in the race for silverware. More players to choose from, more supporters to follow them, more money to wedge from them - beating England has a satisfaction all of its own.
Yet the build-up here over the last week has, unusually, included another element: we don't want only the biff. In fact, a bit less biff would be welcome. Of course, the bloodlust in all of us wants some combat, but such is the fatigue with A&E that we need a trolley-free day. A game perhaps without a concussive episode, one where the try average climbed towards the light - it is just one per game for this fixture over the last three years, an afternoon where we leave the scene marvelling at skill more than savagery. Some agility even.
It's not an insult to players to describe it in those terms because they just do what they're told. And we're the ones dictating the ground rules. The four key constituencies in this (coaches, legislators, media and supporters) have all contributed in various ways to making rugby a game that has a lot of people worried.
Two years ago, after England had choked the life out of Ireland on a slate-grey day in Dublin, we were yakking with a current professional coach about the direction the game had taken and how much distance was left before the bigger/faster/stronger race would reach the finishing tape. He pointed to the Olympic 100m and said "never". And then pointed to the crowds who flock to the modern coliseums to watch rugby and repeated it. Our only response was that it might come down to the most powerful constituency of all, the mammies of Ireland, and elsewhere, who cut off the supply line.
In the interim, we look for chinks of light. Mathieu Bastareaud being dropped by France was a vote, we thought, for a footballer over a destroyer, not that Remi Lamerat, at 6' 1" and over 16.5 stone is a stick insect. Then Philippe Saint-André said the plan was to use Bastareaud towards the end of yesterday's Test in Paris to run over tired Welsh bodies. Turns out he came on in the first quarter, not even that worked for the beleagured coach.
Rather, it was the selection of the England team that showed the latest prototype for midfield backs and it is an appealing vista. The clamour of interest in Jonathan Joseph illustrates the hunger we have for a stepper, a man who can use footwork and skill to get out of a tight corner, supplemented by the gas to get away fast, all of which we saw in perfect harmony in the win over Italy.
What makes Joseph different is that he has the feet and acceleration of a Jason Robinson, truly a thrilling player to watch, but about three inches in height and 10kg in weight to add to the package. Joseph is no giant, but he's all there. Seemingly, he could have earned his corn at tennis or football, but luckily rugby won him over. If he can last the pace then more will follow.
Certainly, he has given a new dimension to England and it looks like sparking some revisionism over rugby league recruit Sam Burgess. If he's struggling to make an impression with Bath in February, is it conceivable that he'll be starring for England in September?
In the meantime, Joseph is benefiting form having another Bath clubmate in close proximity. And in George Ford we have another vote for guile over power. For lots of reasons, Ireland are blessed to have the best 10 in the world in Johnny Sexton, but Ford is a delight to watch. Some of the current Ireland crew remember him as a young lad running around Eddie O'Sullivan's training camps, always with a ball in his hand, when his dad, Mike, was defence coach here. To be exposed for a few years to international athletes as you're heading into your teens must be a powerful influence on any kid with talent. And young Ford has that. But Ireland will hope to succeed where Wales failed and smash him. Certainly, Sexton, a big man by comparison, will look to take him on physically and do to Ford what Bastareaud tried to do to him. You'd wonder why defence coach Andy Farrell doesn't do a bit more to protect his outhalf.
In keeping with the script, establishing physical dominance will be the starting point for a few. Like Paul O'Connell. This is a tricky journey for Ireland's captain, winding up to his sign-off rather than winding down. And that incline is fraught for him and for Joe Schmidt. When the coach invested the leadership in O'Connell, he was asking a man with a long track record of injury to maintain form and fitness through to the World Cup. If Ireland reach their target of a place in the last four then their captain will be enquiring of his team-mates if they have anything special planned for his birthday the following week: his 36th. In a world of 'big asks' as the vernacular has it, that's in the Mastermind category.
O'Connell's specialist subject is being the scariest man on the field. When he finds the right level, his team-mates are terrified of letting him down and his opponents are just terrified. Interestingly, George Kruis, his direct opponent today, coped well enough when Saracens lost to Munster in Thomond Park this season and, but for suspension, would have featured in the rematch in January.
Kruis is one of Saracens' bumper Academy class of 2008, but you wouldn't have earmarked him for great things. As yet, he is not part of the leadership group in Barnet, but having been dropped into the England side in the autumn, he has matured at pace. The win in Cardiff, when he recovered from a bad start to play very well, will stand to him today. Notwithstanding his progress, Kruis has the type of profile that should appeal to O'Connell.
On the flip side, the trio of James Haskell, Billy Vunipola and Chris Robshaw will be queuing up for Jordi Murphy, for whom this is just his third Test start. Jamie Heaslip had a poor game in the corresponding fixture two seasons ago, when his hands deserted him, but his absence today will be a huge deficit. There are a few things that spook England a bit about this game: their backs hate kicking to the Havelock End, where the low-slung tangle of metal takes a bit of getting used to; and they dread giving Ireland oxygen by suffering choke tackles early in the game.
What will inspire them, however is if Vunipola, who they will use regularly at scrumhalf to peel front or back off the line-out, gets a head of steam up and if referee, Craig Joubert, sides with them at the scrum. Either will put Ireland on the back foot and combined with Andy Farrell's 12/13-man defensive line, it's a hard position to overcome.
In which case, Ireland will kick. In fact regardless, Ireland will kick. It has served them well. The France game was littered with examples of contestable kicks being regained, or the receiver being bundled into touch, or simply ground gained leaving the opposition little choice but to bang it back. Why change a winning pattern?
Well, if England get into a defensive rhythm, driven by good line speed, it will quickly become a hot zone for Sexton to pick his plays. The attraction of playing against such a defensive force is that there has to be grass available behind them; the less appealing bit is that if they're in your face all the time, it's hard to think, let alone pick it out.
Italy, however, managed to infect England's defensive line with a few bugs and if they had offloaded a couple of times more, it might have corrupted the whole system. Aaah, the 'O' word. We've stopped counting them now in the Ireland game because they have been virtually verboten. It's funny how people like to remember Leinster under Schmidt as a swashbuckling side who slipped and slid the ball deftly out of all sorts of tricky situations. They were nothing of the sort. Their success was predicated on an exceptional group of players who became better under a coach who demanded extraordinary accuracy in everything from the quality of the carry and clean-out, to the pass and angles of running. Add in some sophisticated starter plays to get it all rolling and, hey presto, you had a champion team. But Barbarian stuff? No, it wasn't that.
So with the stakes so high, today would be an odd time to start. There are opportunities for Ireland to look harder at this aspect, which wouldn't involve the equivalent of putting your life's savings on a spin of a wheel. It might even make life harder for England's D line to get themselves set.
Moreover, it would inject some pace and excitement to a contest that threatens to be one-dimensional, if absorbing. Remember the sheer thrill of the spectacle that was Ireland versus New Zealand in 2013, Schmidt's third game at the helm? Less than five minutes on the clock: a scrum on the left; five phases of aggressive, accurate rugby; and Conor Murray scores. And the tone was set for what was a marvellous game.
We need something similar today, some drama, some invention, anything that bewilders the brigade of dullard commentators whose default description of every game they see is 'an arm-wrestle'.
And if in the last few seconds we're willing Craig Joubert to give us one more play then that will be a bonus.
Source: Sunday Independent Sport
Belfast Telegraph Digital