England must go toe-to-toe with Ireland in Six Nations clash, says Stuart Lancaster
England coach wants discipline but says his players have to be on the emotional edge in Dublin or the game will be all over
England have spent the best part of 150 years playing rugby against the Celtic nations, so they must realise by now that the emotional swirl around these fixtures puts them in a different category to all other games on the Test calendar. They should also have grown accustomed to the fact that whenever they meet Ireland on the far side of the water, the swirl turns into a maelstrom. Once they are dragged into the vortex, there is no escaping it.
Yet in recent years, red-rose hierarchies of various stripes have taken the "history is bunk" approach to the issue and paid a heavy price as a consequence. As the former England attack coach Brian Smith admits, the 2011 Grand Slam match at Lansdowne Road was a case in point. The visitors started that game in the wrong frame of mind, and ended it on the wrong end of a spanking.
The lessons are not lost on the current head coach. "It will be about striking the right balance," said Stuart Lancaster, an hour or so before flying out for the most hotly anticipated of this season's Six Nations confrontations. "You have to be on the edge emotionally, because if you're not up for it in Dublin, it's all over. There again, if you're up for it too much… it's all over. I want us to match the Irish in their physicality, but not go about it in such a way that we lose our discipline or lose sense of our game plan. I want us to find the tipping point."
One player who has made a career out of tipping opponents on their heads – metaphorically rather than physically, as a general rule – will not be on the field at the start of tomorrow's proceedings. Manu Tuilagi, the most destructive of England's midfield players, was confirmed as a replacement, with Billy Twelvetrees and Brad Barritt holding their places in the starting line-up following last week's excellent Calcutta Cup showing against Scotland.
With the Gloucester No 8 Ben Morgan missing the game through injury, the marginal title favourites will face an aggressive Irish outfit without either of their most potent ball-carriers. But Lancaster, who has backed his instinct by naming Tom Wood in Morgan's position and the recalled James Haskell on the blind-side flank, rather than the other way round, seemed perfectly content with the shape of his side.
"We're looking at Tom's ability to control the ball at the base of the scrum," he said, hinting that England will place a great deal of emphasis on squeezing the Irish tight forwards at the set-piece. "As for Manu… well, we didn't have him last week, and we still found our way across the gain line. If you're going to build your attacking game around one or two players only, you'll make things pretty easy for defences."
Tuilagi, out of active rugby since mid-December after suffering an ankle injury on club duty with Leicester, may have been declared fully fit, but he is not quite fit enough for Lancaster's liking. "Our decision on Manu was based around match sharpness," the coach explained. "He's not out of condition, but there's a difference between doing rehab work on a bike and running around on a rugby field, and he's spent very little time on the field in recent weeks. He'd have been able to get through a full 80 minutes if that's what we'd needed, but when you have a choice…"
Talking of choices, Lancaster could be accused of kicking the can down the road in terms of making a decisive call on his optimum centre pairing. But Lansdowne Road is no place for a midfielder who might be a few crucial percentage points off his game, for the very good reason that the Irish are just a little bit handy in this area. Gordon D'Arcy? Good enough to have threatened to make a name for himself with the British and Irish Lions, even if he never quite delivered. Brian O'Driscoll? One of the great Lions of the era. Or of any era, come to that.
Lancaster will discover more about Twelvetrees, in particular, over the course of Sunday's game than he has learnt in almost two years of coaching him at one representative level or another. The newcomer repeatedly caught the eye on his debut against the Scots, picking clever angles and hitting them at pace before flicking dangerous passes out of either hand. Tomorrow, he will need to bring other aspects of his game to the party.
"It will be different, I'm sure," Twelvetrees conceded. "I didn't kick once last weekend, and I spent a lot of time on the front foot because our forwards put us in so many good positions. I'm not naïve: I know what we're facing. I can remember watching O'Driscoll play for the Lions in 2001 and scoring an amazing try against the Wallabies in the first Test. Going in against these blokes is a challenge, but one I'm excited about taking on." Twelvetrees will also have an important role to play in the aerial contest, being the tallest of the England backs.
"Ireland's kicking game is a threat," Lancaster acknowledged, going on to stress the perils of allowing Jonathan Sexton to run the show from the outside-half position he is favoured to fill for the Lions when they return to Wallaby country this summer. "Sexton likes putting the ball in the air and people like Rob Kearney [the Irish full-back] enjoy chasing it. But I'm confident our guys will be good under the high ball. Equally, we're aware of the importance of putting pressure on Sexton and limiting his choices."
Speaking of which, England have only one choice, when all is said and done.
Rising above the fire and fury is fine and dandy in theory, but the reality of rugby life on Six Nations day in Dublin demands something very different in practice. This will be a fierce game, and the visitors will need to be at their most ferocious if they are to leave town in one piece.
Three key confrontations: with Lions connotations
Sean O'Brien v Chris Robshaw
One of the most compelling individual contests. O'Brien is exceptional in open field and strong over the ball: very much a force of back-row nature. His decision-making is not always of the highest quality, however. Robshaw's turnover work is every bit as accomplished and his tackle count is stratospheric.
Conor Murray v Ben Youngs
Scrum-half is an open book as far as Lions selection goes, so both No 9s will have an eye on the bright lights. Can Murray balance his strong running game with some craft and cunning? Can Youngs rein himself in temperamentally and show some fine judgement? Time will tell.
Jonathan Sexton v Owen Farrell
The England coach, Stuart Lancaster, sees Sexton as "one of the world's best outside-halves", adding that the younger, less experienced Farrell "just wants to play against the best". Yet Farrell is developing at such a pace, the tables could be turned over the next few weeks. A fascinating duel.
Dublin memories: previous encounters
March 2011, Ireland 24-8 England
Grand Slam-chasing England arrived in Ireland with an air of expectancy but were overcome in an ill-tempered affair in Dublin. After a poor Six Nations campaign, Ireland finally mustered up the kind of performance their supporters wanted to see.
Feb 2005, Ireland 19-13 England
Brian O'Driscoll, so often the scourge of the English, produced another fine performance as the visitors fell to a late flurry at Lansdowne Road. After winning their first three, Ireland lost their remaining two games, finishing third.
March 1999, Ireland 15-27 England
Tries from Matt Perry and Tim Rodber helped England on their way to what seemed like a Grand Slam in the Five Nations, but Scotland claimed the overall title on points difference after England's gruelling 32-31 defeat by Wales at Wembley on the final weekend.
March 1991, Ireland 7-16 England
In their penultimate match of the campaign, England overcame Ireland in Dublin thanks to tries from Mike Teague and Rory Underwood. They went on to claim their first Five Nations Grand Slam for 11 years.
Saturday Scotland v Italy; France v Wales
Sunday Ireland v England.
23 Feb Italy v Wales; England v France. 24 Feb Scotland v Ireland. 9 Mar Scotland v Wales; Ireland v France. 10 Mar England v Italy. 16 Mar Italy v Ireland; Wales v England; France v Scotland.
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