Belfast Telegraph

Home Sport Rugby

Chris Henry: Why facing England and their confident squad was always the big game for Ireland

In this week's column, the former international also looks ahead to his legends debut and back at Ulster's draw with Benetton

Follow the leader: Rory Best will have a big say for Ireland
Follow the leader: Rory Best will have a big say for Ireland
Chris Henry

By Chris Henry

The silence was probably only 10 to 15 seconds long; it felt as if it lasted four or five years.

Rugby round up Newsletter

Game previews, plus expert insights and exclusive commentary from the Belfast Telegraph sports team.

"Chris, what is your main focus at this scrum?" Ireland's then-new coach Joe Schmidt had asked me in Carton House. Pondering my answer, I was thinking about the winger coming in and the starting position of the full-back, the things you'd usually be looking for as a flanker coming off a scrum. As the wait went on, and a fair bit of panic came over me, the embarrassment wasn't helped when it wasn't even a forward who bailed me out.

"Head down and scrum long," offered one of our scrum-halves Eoin Reddan. Right he was.

The Six Nations was always demanding - you're so consumed by it that your everyday life is almost on hold for seven weeks. Imagine how precious your time becomes, especially for players like Keith Earls and Rory Best who both have three young children - but under Joe it was a different level.

There is no gentle build-up with Joe. He demands that every player knows his detail from day one. The Leinster players had an advantage when it came to what was required compared to those of us who hadn't dealt with him in a provincial capacity. They already knew the answers to those tough questions and the rest of us were playing catch-up.

But those days are long gone now. In his fifth and final Six Nations, this is Schmidt's Ireland and everyone knows the detail has to have been done long before you get into camp. When you look to that leadership group, you've got Best of Ulster, Pete O'Mahony and Conor Murray of Munster, and Johnny Sexton, who was with him through Leinster and Ireland. The whole squad is singing off the same hymn sheet and has been around long enough to ensure the exacting standards are met.

If you think about it, the forward who's had the least exposure to the environment from the initial Six Nations squad was Tadhg Beirne - we're talking about a player with a PRO14 medal in his drawer who has been one of the best locks in Europe for the last few years.

He'll be a big loss to Ireland, so too Iain Henderson, but even still you're looking at a lock pairing of James Ryan and Devin Toner. With Dev, what you don't get with the big carries you make up for in a lot of other ways like at the lineout where I'm sure he'll be a big help to Rory.

The big selection call that I can see is at openside. If Dan Leavy was fit I think he'd be in the seven jersey for sure, but without him, has Sean O'Brien done enough in his one game back to show he's ready for Test rugby? I'd be looking at Jordi Murphy. It was an Ireland omission back in November 2017 that really sparked his move to Ulster.

A proper 'Blue Blood' Leinster boy, it was his desire to play in these types of games that had him looking elsewhere. For Ulster, he's been getting better with every game he's played and it would be a real justification for his move if he gets the nod.

Ultimately, without a minute having been played, a lot of what will be said this week is only speculation, but no matter what the game plans are there's one thing that doesn't change for fans or, to be honest, the players - that Ireland v England is the big one. It probably started out as jealousy with England being the most successful team in the Championship, but there was always just something about them - a certain, shall we say, confidence.

The English players are compensated extremely well financially compared to others, especially from win bonuses, and at times there is an air of Premier League footballers about them.

More recently, the ridiculous opinion that the English Premiership is more competitive and of a higher standard than our Pro14 league is hard to listen to.

I never beat them in my career - just think, 2014 could have been a Grand Slam too - but this is the one, especially in Dublin, where you sense Irish bodies are always going to be getting off the floor that split second quicker.

I wouldn't be boldly predicting consecutive Grand Slams - beating both Scotland and Wales away is a big ask - but I can't see Ireland losing this week.

I'll be getting the boots back on for a great cause

The Aviva isn't hosting the only big Ireland v England clash of the week and I'm looking forward to making my debut in the legends game on Friday night at the RDS Arena.

I'll be rooming with Paul Marshall so it'll be just like old times there and, 150-odd days since my last game, it'll be great to be out playing again.

Seeing the email come through with the squad, it's some group of players really, the likes of Gordon D'Arcy, Mal O'Kelly and Denis Hurley, as well as Mike Tindall for England. There'll be plenty of offloads I'm sure but I've already been assured rucks are live so I'll be able to do my part too.

Like any Ireland v England game, it'll be competitive, but I see already that the plan is to meet up at 12.30pm for a 7.30pm kick-off. It is the perfect way to start the Six Nations weekend and I imagine, in true old-school rugby fashion, there might be a beer or two over lunch to settle the nerves!

Mainly, though, I'm happy to be able to support a good cause.

There will be a contribution made from the game to the Doddie Weir foundation in honour of the former Scottish lock who is living with motor neurone disease.

The 'My Name'5 Doddie' campaign is attempting to raise funds to aid research into a cure as well as money for those living with the disease.

Pride comes before a maul for Ulster's improving set-piece

Matt Williams is the first coach I can remember using the phrase about a draw being like kissing your sister and I'd wager that both the Ulster and Treviso dressing rooms were pretty frustrated on Friday night.

It's always tough following up the emotional high of those big European occasions of the past few weeks and, if more proof beyond Belfast was needed, Edinburgh's great run was ended by the Southern Kings. Leinster and Munster weren't great either.

Benetton will have left thinking they deserved a win, and Ulster just couldn't slow down their ball at ruck time.

As individuals, I rate the three players that Ulster had as their loose forwards - they all have a lot of strengths that they bring to the position. But sometimes as a back-row unit, the one thing you aren't doing can become even more important than the sum total of everything else.

In this case, there just wasn't enough over the ball.

When Ulster did force the turnover in the end, it was a huge one from Clive Ross and it was that big penalty that set up the maul and led to the face-saving penalty try. In days gone past, Ulster could be in that situation and it'd be a case of one yard forward and a cloud of dust. You could almost sense backs going, 'Why are we bothering?' when the ball went to the corner. It's working so well now, though, and that started with a change in training. You might only be talking 20 minutes of the session, but there's no gentleman's agreements any more. Instead, it's mouth guards in and away we go, a proper battle - Aaron Dundon even has an aerial camera so he can review a bird's-eye-view angle.

When you get backs like Darren Cave and Louis Ludik piling in as they did on Friday, you know the players have all sensed the change. Every kilo counts!

Belfast Telegraph

Popular

From Belfast Telegraph