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Parisse says Irish are on higher level than England, but it's up to the men in green to prove it

 

By Ruaidhri O'Connor

So Sergio Parisse reckons Ireland are a better team than England and - having faced them both in a six-day period - who better to judge?

They stand alone as the two unbeaten sides left in the Six Nations mix, both on nine points after their two games with Ireland's points difference of +39 marginally keeping them ahead of England on +37.

Between them they have won the last four titles, and since Joe Schmidt took the reins the record (excluding a meaningless pre-World Cup friendly) stands at played four, won two, lost two for each team.

They won't meet until the final game at Twickenham, a clash almost everyone is hoping will be a Grand Slam shoot-out and that remains intact thanks to Johnny Sexton's Parisian heroics and Sam Underhill's brilliant last-ditch tackle.

Such are the margins that keep finales on the cards and with both sides facing tough fixtures in rounds three and four there is no guarantee that they'll land in Twickenham unscathed.

After all they've been through as a team, Ireland would back themselves in a one-off game in London but they won't go shouting it from the rooftops.

Although his Leinster side won a Heineken Cup at Twickenham, Schmidt is yet to coach an international side to victory at the RFU's headquarters, but his team are evolving and have come up with some brilliant results in the past 18 months.

Asked about the two sides, Parisse said: "I think Ireland play much better rugby than England for me. It's much more difficult to defend against them. For me it was far more difficult against Ireland. I like the way they play. For me they play very good rugby; yeah, they are better than England."

His coach Conor O'Shea echoed his thoughts, although his being an Irishman could leave him open to suggestions of bias.

Parisse, however, has no such skin in the game. Perhaps the fact that he was sitting in a Dublin press conference room when he was asked swayed him, but we've no reason to take him under anything other than face value.

Is he right? Well, currently the English sit second on the World Rugby rankings table with Ireland one behind.

Under Eddie Jones, they have won 24 of their 25 Tests and claimed two Six Nations - one of which was a Grand Slam. The one defeat, of course, came against Ireland and it should also be noted that they have yet to face the All Blacks on the Australian's watch.

That eagerly anticipated heavyweight battle comes in November, but before then the Chariot will roll to Murrayfield next week and Paris in early March before they return to their home ground for what they hope will be a three-in-a-row celebration.

Last summer, England supplied 15 players to the Lions' touring squad - of whom 10 saw Test action - while Ireland contributed 11 - of whom seven featured in Tests.

Although Schmidt has spoken about this being his youngest Six Nations squad, the starting XV that started against Italy contained 620 caps between them, while the English side that beat Wales is slightly more experienced with 734 caps between them.

Experienced is to be cherished in the Test arena and coaches often point to it as a critical factor.

Both coaches have been trying to deepen their squads by bringing in talent from recent strong age-grade sides, but they are being put into teams led by an experienced core of leaders.

Increasingly, the focus of each of them is around one man. For Ireland, it's Sexton, and for England, Owen Farrell.

The duo lined up alongside one another in June and July and they are vying for the title of most influential player in this year's tournament, and - fitness permitting - their battle on St Patrick's Day will be worth the television licence.

Both are top quality play-makers, brilliant defenders and excellent decision makers in the white-heat of battle.

Farrell may play one slot out in the English midfield while Sexton is firmly the No.10, but the Saracens man is the key man in the backline through whom everything goes.

During Jones' time, Ireland have been in a rebuilding phase. Schmidt spoke on Saturday about replacing the likes of Paul O'Connell and Brian O'Driscoll as well as stalwarts like Mike Ross.

Sean O'Brien and Jamie Heaslip are sidelined, with Robbie Henshaw another key voice gone behind the scrum.

Whatever about the pound for pound abilities of their starting XVs, there is greater depth in the English game which means injuries don't have the same effect to Jones, who can usually find decent replacements for his top men.

Schmidt has four provinces, three of whom are in the Champions Cup, to choose from while Jones has 12 clubs - albeit with more overseas players taking top spots. Seven Premiership teams took part in the top tournament this season.

Conversely, Schmidt has more access to his players and can control their minutes.

One wonders, however, what he could achieve with the resources at Jones' disposal and how the opinionated Australian would fit in on these shores.

We'll find out if Parisse is right on March 17 but the sense is that Ireland have work to do.

Belfast Telegraph

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