Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 23 September 2014

RBS 6 Nations: England v Ireland will be determined by slim margins

All set: Courtney Lawes during the England captain's run yesterday

The Six Nations champions will not be crowned this weekend, but we are unquestionably facing into the most pivotal phase of the competition to date.

This afternoon's collision in Twickenham is huge, as two coaches I have massive respect for – Joe Schmidt and Stuart Lancaster – go head to head in a mouthwatering contest.

Our record at Twickenham since the turn of the millennium has been pretty good, with wins on Billy Williams' old cabbage patch in 2004, 2006 and 2010.

That's three wins from our last five visits there. Conversely, we suffered hammerings in 2000 (leaking 50 points), 2002, 2008 and 2012.

The three we won were all single-score games, so there is a trend. Either we halt the chariot in its tracks and win narrowly, or else we lose our way and get milled.

Whatever today's outcome, it is difficult to see Schmidt's men suffering a humiliation.

That said, recent history is something we must be acutely aware of. Any English team on the front foot on their home patch is capable of cutting loose and hammering that advantage home mercilessly.

After such a hugely encouraging start under Schmidt, I expect Ireland to at least push England to the limit. Barring some unforeseen mid-match crisis, I can not see any team prepared by the new head coach being on the receiving end of an annihilation. We may win narrowly, but we won't lose heavily.

There are so many imponderables surrounding today's game.

Can England boss the gain line as they have done so effectively in both their matches to date? Losing to the French when dominating position and possession in Paris can be attributed to naivety at this point in this emerging squad's development.

There is no doubt you learn so much more from losing than winning and I suspect that will be very much the case for Lancaster's England now.

They possess big, powerful and dynamic ball-carriers throughout the side but particularly where it matters most – in the forward pack.

In modern-day rugby the battle for gain-line supremacy is one of inches, but when forwards of the ball-carrying ability of Billy Vunipola, Courtney Lawes, Dylan Hartley, Ben Morgan et al break from the fringe of a scrum, ruck or maul, they do so with a force that not alone breaks the gain-line but takes the forward momentum way beyond that.

Rugby becomes a very simple game to play after that. In a game of territory, forward momentum is everything.

To that end it is imperative Ireland do to England what the Welsh did to us at the 2011 World Cup.

Cutting carriers at source is central to survival this afternoon. Do that and we are in with a real chance of making it four wins from six in south west London.

Our scrum is strong, our replacement strength significant, our line-out was imperious against the Welsh – and by extension John Plumtree's work at the maul has brought our use of the touchline (by both halves) much more into play.

This is one of the great games and great occasions in world rugby.

Just as the visit of the Welsh brought a sense of anticipation to the Aviva, so too will this game draw a unique and special atmosphere to Twickenham.

It's going to be a thriller. Bring it on.

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