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Schmidt all set for English power as he targets title glory

 

Old enemy: Ireland's Bundee Aki feels heat from Jonathan Joseph
Old enemy: Ireland's Bundee Aki feels heat from Jonathan Joseph
Joe Schmidt

By Ruaidhri O'Connor

There is no glory without power in the modern-day Test arena. Size matters like never before as Saturday's clash of Ireland and England at the Aviva Stadium will emphasise.

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In the build-up to the opening match of Joe Schmidt's side's title defence, both he and Eddie Jones have openly discussed the "brutality" they expect between the white lines.

The high stakes make things extra claustrophobic for what is always a taut affair and the wintry conditions won't help encourage an open game.

Instead, the expectation is that we are in for a bruiser of an international, one which will leave watching club coaches wincing as their players get put through the physical wringer.

"You look at England, the first game up, they've some big, big physical players," Leo Cullen said as he contemplated a game that could feature as many as 14 of his Leinster charges.

"They have gone away together. That siege mentality will be built, I'm sure, for them, off the back of a disappointing campaign last year.

"Everyone is writing England off. I think they will be a dangerous team."

The return of the Vunipola brothers and Manu Tuilagi adds size, style and substance to the England game.

Eddie Jones squad is laced with size and power. Their pack is a bruising one with ball-carrying might across the lines and their backline mixes pace and power nicely.

The Australian spoke last week of how Ireland have evolved their game to become a possession-based team who can patiently work their way through high numbers of phases to grind down opponents and ultimately score.

Increasingly, the handiest tool while watching Schmidt's team play is the phase-counter in the corner of the screen as it ticks up through the 20s, 30s and even into the 40s. They averaged 136 attacking rucks per game in last year's tournament.

"The reason they're tough to play against is their retention of the ball," Warren Gatland says of Ireland.

"Particularly if they get into your 22, their conversion rate for scoring is excellent, whether it's three points through Johnny Sexton or getting over the line.

"They're hard to get the ball off, they're disciplined, in terms of conceding territory and giving away penalties. They're probably one of the hardest teams in the world to play against."

Stopping Ireland holding on to possession will be Jones' focus. If his big men can win the collisions, they will force Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton to kick and with a solid back three with plenty of counter-attacking threat, he'll see that as a win.

Ireland will look for lightning-quick ruck ball and Bath showed against Leinster that it is possible to disrupt the supply to an impressive backline if you can get in over the ball. Sam Underhill is a big loss in that regard.

Ireland may not the be the biggest team in world rugby, but they are one of the most physical and their tactic of using a 'latch' support player to double the weight in the attacking collision has been hugely effective.

It would be no surprise to see England try and cut down the influence of support players where possible.

Jones faces a selection dilemma, with the option of pairing Tuilagi and Ben Te'o a real temptation as he looks for a physical advantage.

In November, his selection veered away from the 10-12 combination of the diminutive George Ford and Owen Farrell to using Farrell at out-half with Te'o outside him and Henry Slade offering a combination of size and creativity at outside centre.

Slade is not a small man, but he is giving up three stone to Leicester's Tuilagi who was this week picked by Brian O'Driscoll as one of the two England players he'd picked in a combined XV.

Tuilagi is rusty, but showing signs of a return to the form that saw him earn O'Driscoll's respect on the 2013 Lions tour and dominate the All Blacks in 2012. Whoever Jones picks, Schmidt is expecting a bruising game. "We need to be primed anyway for what will be a really physical encounter," he said. "I just think they are going to be physical and they've got the firepower to by physical.

"I think with Billy back, Mako as a carrier for them, they've got a number of guys - even if they didn't pick Billy and they pick Nathan Hughes, they're very powerful men.

"And then you can run guys in through the midfield like Ben Te'o or Manu Tuilagi, depending on what way Eddie wants to shape his backline, whether he puts George and Owen together or whether he's got Owen, Ben and Slade, who I think is a very talented player, together or even if Jonathan Joseph comes back into that slot, I just think there are many different ways they can play, we just have to be ready for it.

"What he has signalled is that there is one particular way that, at times, will be delivered and he's just probably signalled that we need to be ready for that."

The Ireland coach said he selects to his own side's strengths rather than overly worrying about the opposition, but as he assesses his resources with a quick turnaround to Scotland he will give consideration to the more powerful combination of Robbie Henshaw and Bundee Aki in midfield.

However, that would sacrifice the creative talents and clever defensive work of Garry Ringrose - something Schmidt will be reluctant to do.

It will also give him food for thought as he assesses his back-row options, with the powerful Seán O'Brien up against the more fleet-of-foot Josh van der Flier.

For most of 2018, Ireland were the dominant force in contact. England arrive in Dublin this week determined to bully them in a way no one managed last year.

Succeed and they plant doubt in Irish minds and provide a template for others to follow. But if Schmidt's men resist, they go a long way towards sustaining World Cup momentum.

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