Anyone imagining that England have a right to be completely confident ahead of this evening's curtain-down Six Nations contest with Ireland at Twickenham might care to take a peek at the records: since the great Grand Slam performance in Dublin in 2003, the red-rose year of years, they have finished second in this fixture seven times out of eight. It is one thing putting three tries past the French in Paris, and quite another putting one over the green-shirted hordes on any rectangle of mud anywhere in the world. Especially on St Patrick's Day.
Not that Andy Farrell had much use for the relevant statistics when he weighed the prospects yesterday.
"We're aware of the record against Ireland," he said. "But then, we were aware of England's record at Murrayfield, of the difficulty of playing in Rome, of all the talk about Wales being the form side in the competition, of the fact that France hadn't lost a home championship match for four years. It's a difficult challenge we face, but the players are up for any type of challenge. They're not frightened of anyone. There is no fear."
Which is quite something, under the circumstances. Farrell, one third of the caretaker coaching team appointed to do some essential reputational restoration work after the embarrassments and humiliations of the World Cup campaign in New Zealand, has been directly involved in the project since January – a mere nine weeks, during which he and his colleagues, Stuart Lancaster and Graham Rowntree, have exceeded all expectations except their own. Should this fresh, ambitious but profoundly inexperienced England side win today and secure a top-two tournament finish, a high percentage of Twickenham's paying public will be horrified at the thought of everyone going their separate ways tomorrow.
Yet it might happen. There is no guarantee that the Rugby Football Union, hardly the vast and unshakeable monument to sporting wisdom it has long considered itself to be, will appoint Lancaster on a full-time basis, despite the fact that he has played such a clever and resourceful hand in creating a competitive team out of thin air. And even if it does, there is the question of Farrell's day job. There are two years remaining on his contract with Saracens, who, unsurprisingly, are reluctant to lose his services, and while the Premiership champions would dig a very deep public relations hole for themselves if they flatly refused to contemplate letting him go at any price, there is still the question of his own plans and ambitions.
Farrell was suitably impenetrable on the subject yesterday. "It's a hypothetical question, isn't it?" he replied when asked whether the lure of a World Cup cycle with his national team, leading into the home tournament in 2015, might prove irresistible. "All of us have known from the start that the England job as it is finishes after this game. Will I miss it? There's nothing to miss because we're all going home. I've thoroughly enjoyed this experience: obviously, it's the pinnacle. But I have a good job with Saracens and I'll be back there next week. As a coach, you always want to be involved in a World Cup. When that will be, who knows? It could be a long way down the track."
It is a sign of this coaching team's success that there are as many ifs, whats and maybes about the immediate future of the back-room staff than about their side's capabilities on the field. If the high-tempo performances against Wales and France are a reliable guide, the odds on them prevailing over Ireland in the Six Nations arena for the first time since 2008 are significantly shorter now than they were at the start of the tournament. Certainly, the visitors will not want to give Farrell's offspring, the 20-year-old outside-half Owen, more than a couple of shots at the sticks, for he appears incapable of missing often.
Yet Ireland present specific difficulties that will be new to the home side, particularly in and around the tackle area. This time last year, when Martin Johnson's side travelled to Dublin in search of a Grand Slam, the home side's choke-tackle tactic – the deliberate holding up of opponents in contact – worked like a charm, and with the flankers Stephen Ferris and Sean O'Brien flexing their biceps in tandem following the latter's recovery from a skin infection, it could easily work again. Throw in the additional turnover skills of the No 8 Jamie Heaslip and the risks to the England back-row unit are there for all to see.
Ben Foden, the red-rose full-back, also faces a testing 80 minutes, particularly in the aerial department. Rob Kearney, his opposite number, has been picking high balls out of the stratosphere like a Gaelic Games genius while the free-scoring wing Tommy Bowe tends to bring his 6ft 3in frame to bear on proceedings when Jonathan Sexton hits the spot with his tactical kicking from outside-half.
A fourth England victory in five tournament outings – two, even three more than many anticipated before the off – is far from a foregone conclusion, but such is the sense of can-do optimism in the camp, it is as likely as not. The outcome could be decided at the last knockings and in that event, the feel-good Farrell factor, on and off the field, may prove decisive. And that, in turn, would leave the RFU under enormous pressure to stick with what it has.
Irish tests: Three threats from Ireland
The little man from Munster has defended strongly and has the footwork to make Manu Tuilagi, the big man from Leicester, think twice.
Dismissed as a "pastry chef" by the former England forward Nick Easter, he took the rolling pin to England's front row last year
He may be short of a fully functioning knee, but everything else is in perfect working order. Unusually strong, unnaturally competitive.
- More about:
- Saracens (rugby)