Paul O’Connell, one of the grandest figures in European union for a decade or more, could not have been more complimentary about England on the eve of what may well turn out to be his last meeting with the old enemy. “They have great structure, they play great rugby,” he said. “We may be Six Nations champions, but two of the best performances in this year’s competition were England’s victory over Wales in Cardiff and their last-day effort against France.”
Yet beneath the kind words there lurked something altogether more disturbing from the red-rose perspective: the hint of a suspicion that the World Cup hosts’ conciliatory display in Paris last time out exposed them as a side with a soft centre.
“Everyone can have days like that, no matter how good you are,” said the high-class lock from Limerick, who will lead his country into the forthcoming global tournament and do his damnedest to drag the side into the latter stages before calling it quits at Test level and heading to France for a lucrative swansong in Toulon. “But what happened to them over there was rare to see from an England team under Stuart Lancaster’s coaching. They’ll be pumped up for the physical aspect of the game against us. I’ve no doubt they’ll be looking for a response.” There was a knowing twinkle in the eye throughout this address.
If the England forwards do indeed take the field seeking to make a muscular point or two, they are likely to find the Irish in “bring it on” mood. O’Connell and the two green-shirted flankers, Peter O’Mahony and Sean O’Brien, know what it is to lord it over their opposite numbers in the heat of battle and if they succeed in establishing supremacy at close quarters, they will go a long way towards undermining England’s hometown confidence ahead of the global tournament. And for that, they will be thanked by every other title contender in the draw.
While O’Connell hardly enjoyed the experience of finishing second to Wales in his last Test appearance on Irish soil last weekend, he did not sound unduly concerned by the nature of the defeat. “There are certain things we need to do well if we’re to play well,” the captain said. “There are principles we hold dear and if we drift away from them, we put ourselves in tight positions. That’s what happened in Dublin.
“We’re quite good at troubleshooting: we can watch a rerun of a game just the once and know where we slipped up. There were a few slip-offs against Wales; we did a few things we don’t normally do in areas by which we put a lot of store. So in this game against England, we’ll be looking to correct the balance.”
There is a familiar look to the Irish line-up: Conor Murray and Jonathan Sexton, the best half-back partnership in the northern hemisphere, will be together once again, as will the post-Brian O’Driscoll centre pairing of Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne.
If there is an obvious concern for the visitors it is at loose-head prop, where the continuing absence of Cian Healy leaves them short of options. Jack McGrath will start the game on the left-hand side of the front row, with Tadhg Furlong covering him from the bench. The fact that Furlong’s international career is precisely 23 minutes old, and that he is a tight-head prop by breeding, tells its own story. If the England scrummagers cannot attack Ireland here, there really will be no hope.Reuse content