Brian Smith column: Sexton can keep Ireland in the driving seat while Lancaster looks for forwards momentum

Former England attack coach looks at this weekend's Six Nations action

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The Independent Online

The two most accomplished teams in Europe meet in what promises to be a fascinating Six Nations fixture this afternoon … and no, I’m not talking about England and Scotland. There is a high level of interest surrounding the Calcutta Cup match at Twickenham, not least because both teams emerged from the last round of matches as damaged goods, but if you want to go to the heart of this season’s title race, Cardiff is the place to be.

It’s difficult to imagine a more perfectly balanced contest. Wales, a little past their best but still a very significant force in northern hemisphere rugby, are slowly heading down the mountain, while Ireland, a team on the rise, are inching their way towards the summit. Today, the two of them will be running into each other pretty high up on the ridge. It should be a ferocious encounter, intense in its physicality.

The two coaches, New Zealanders both, are in interesting places right now. Warren Gatland has been with Wales for a long stretch and, as I’ve mentioned previously during this tournament, he can’t be finding it easy to come up with new ways of motivating his players – of keeping his message fresh, as well as relevant. The ace card he holds is experience: he has players used to winning, who understand how to produce big performances in the big games.

Wales have built their recent successes on solid foundations rather than trendy ideas: the defensive strategy put in place by Shaun Edwards; a great kick-chase routine; a fitness regime that has made them bigger, stronger and faster than most of their opponents for substantial periods of time. There may not be much mystery about them, but they sure ask tough questions of their opponents.


Ireland’s image is somewhat different, largely because their coach, Joe Schmidt, is widely considered to be a genuinely innovative thinker on the game. But while Joe is undoubtedly a clever tactician, he also strikes me as a brilliant salesman. Why do I say this? Because the way I see it, he’s sold a pretty basic, narrowly focused approach to his players by wrapping it up as something more ambitious.

Let’s be honest here: Ireland aren’t scoring many tries from anywhere on the field, and if you hold your breath waiting for them to attack from deep, you could easily end up in the medical room. Sure, they have some eye-catching “sequence plays”, and as they execute them beautifully more often than not, it’s obvious that the players are completely on-message. But when you boil it all down, they depend a hell of a lot on their kick-chase – albeit it a Rolls-Royce version, with the half-backs Jonny Sexton and Conor Murray in the front seats.

My suspicion that Ireland will prevail today is based primarily on the fact that Sexton is fit to play at No 10. Before the England match in Dublin 13 days ago I described him as the best outside-half in the world, and I saw nothing during that contest to prompt a change of opinion. He’s a high-class player, his technical expertise underpinned by the super-sharp instincts of a natural game manager.

But this is a serious test for Ireland. Even though they’re the reigning Six Nations champions and have a top-three spot in the world rankings, they are not entirely convincing when weighed down by short odds. It’s one thing running out against the All Blacks with high energy levels, low expectations and no pressure. It’s quite another to deliver winning performances as the bookmakers’ favourites.

England do not have a Sexton, although I believe George Ford to be an outside-half of great potential, so I’ll be interested to see how they handle the threat from Scotland. They knew exactly what was heading their way when they went to Dublin, yet failed to deal with it: people went missing, and Stuart Lancaster must have found that hard to take. If you’re beaten because your opponents have pulled some rabbits out of the hat, you credit them for their ingenuity and move on. If you find yourselves with your pants round your ankles even though the other team did exactly what you assumed they’d do, the frustration is on another scale.

Still, I’m encouraged the England coaches took the “rollerball” approach to training with a fiery training session in midweek. If you go soft on the physical stuff during a break in matches, you can easily find yourself mugged: far better to blast right on through than let your players take it easy.

What would be a satisfactory return against the Scots? A four-try victory, I’d say, although a three-try performance might be acceptable if the right level of attacking intent is there. But apart from the flashy stuff, Stuart will also want to see some ruthless, no-holds-barred domination from his forwards after that quiet performance in Ireland.

My fellow countryman Michael Cheika, the Wallaby coach, tells me he prefers it when he’s scared of one or two of the blokes in his pack, on the basis that if he can bully the entire forward unit, the opposition can bully them too. Speaking as someone who had the good fortune to play his rugby outside the scrum, it makes perfect sense!