England vs Ireland: Red-rose team need to tighten up in final rehearsal for the world's biggest show

After the France debacle, Lancaster will be looking for the pack to pull together in last World Cup warm-up with Ireland

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The Independent Online

The last time England played Ireland in a World Cup warm-up match – across the water in Dublin, four years ago – they won far more convincingly than the 20-9 scoreline suggested, thanks in no small part to a new red-rose centre called Manu Tuilagi. By the time the human bowling ball had rolled off an Auckland ferry and into the hands of the harbour police a few weeks later, he and his countrymen had been reduced to laughing stocks and were heading out of New Zealand in disgrace.

The moral of the story? Don’t peak too soon. The chances of this infinitely more puritanical England squad going on the sauce in public after the opening game of the pool stage and being photographed wrestling with a dwarf in some dive of a downtown bar – or being rude to sponsors, or being caught pulling a fast one with a set of match balls – is fairly remote, but when a senior member of the coaching team announces that “the World Cup starts here”, it is as well to be just a little cautious.

This afternoon’s meeting with Ireland at Twickenham is important for a number of reasons – some of them technical, others entirely abstract – so Graham Rowntree’s decision single-handedly to launch the tournament a fortnight early was understandable. But England will win nothing today, barring a game of rugby that may or may not be distorted by experimental tinkerings off the replacements’ bench, and the  forwards coach knows it.

What Rowntree most needs to see is a sharp upturn in his pack’s performance across the piece, from A to Z: at the scrum and line-out, at the breakdown, in and around the fringe defence. Against France in Paris last time out, next to nothing went right for an hour, by which time the contest had been as good as lost. Similar defects today will be exposed even more ruthlessly by an Irish side full of swagger and can-do spirit, despite their home defeat by Wales a week ago.




“Ireland are a clever, well-coached team and they’re always a challenge,” Rowntree acknowledged. “But I promise you one thing: our lads have trained exceptionally well this week. We haven’t been the worst pack in the world over the last couple of years, so while there were issues in both warm-up games against France, I haven’t felt the need for hysteria. I’ve told the players there are elements of our game that need to be better, we’ve looked at those elements and we’ve corrected them. Now, it’s important to deliver.”

If one of the deliverers-in-chief turns out to be Ben Morgan, the England coaches will throw a party. Back in January, the Gloucester No 8 left Kingsholm on a stretcher, having suffered a gruesome fracture to his lower leg. His recovery was remarkably rapid – had he still been on crutches when the first game with France came around last month, no one would have died of shock – but when he took the field that night, he looked a long way short of the optimum in terms of match sharpness.

The England hierarchy picked him anyway, jettisoning Nick Easter of Harlequins instead, and the wisdom of that decision will be confirmed today. Or not, as the case may be. If Morgan prospers against an opposite number as accomplished as Jamie Heaslip, who has looked in prime form just lately, Rowntree and his  fellow back-roomers will consider themselves vindicated. And if he flounders? It doesn’t bear thinking about.

“That first hit-out against France last month was massive for Ben,” the coach said. “Mentally, he needed those 40 minutes of rugby and we were pleased with what he did during his time on the pitch. Since then, he’s gone up another gear. He’s in the shape of his life – he really is a specimen of a bloke – and I’m looking forward to seeing him in this game, because in training we’ve been watching Ben being Ben Morgan.”

Assuming the red-rose scrummagers brush up their act – and there is nothing in the Irish front row to strike the fear of God into them – and Geoff Parling’s return to line-out bears sufficient fruit to give the England backs the front-foot ball they crave, the focus will be on the conflict around the tackle area. The visitors are undeniably strong in this department, both with and without the ball. It will be down to Chris Robshaw, Tom Wood and a revitalised Morgan to bring some authority to the red-rose game in the loose by generating quality possession through speed of thought and deed.

Without a significant improvement on the floor, England will be in no position to win today’s game, let alone the World Cup. Mind you, there are those in the higher echelons of the Rugby Football Union who already take the view that it requires too much of an imaginative leap to place serious money on the home nation regaining the Webb Ellis Cup at the end of next month. Rob Andrew, for one.

The governing body’s professional rugby director was quoted as saying that this current England set-up has a good three years’ worth of improvement left in it and is more likely to hit the heights at the 2019 tournament in Japan. Predictably enough, those comments sent rugby’s uber-nationalists into orbit, with much ridiculous spluttering about insubordination among the officer class.

But, of course, Andrew was bang on the money. The younger players in the squad – the wing Anthony Watson, the centre Henry Slade, the outside-half George Ford, the lock Joe Launchbury, the No 8 Billy Vunipola – are shining lights already, but they have yet to reach full glow. Throw in the likes of Maro Itoje, the brilliant Saracens back-rower who heads the next generation of likely lads, and there is no knowing what could be achieved in four years’ time.

But, as Rowntree indicated, there are more urgent issues to think about right now. “This team will only get better and better with experience, let’s all agree on that,” he remarked. “I can see it from working with the guys, day in and day out. But we also know that we can win a World Cup with this group of players, and that excites me.” In other words, first things first.

That means Ireland, who rather fancy their own chances of laying hands on some silverware in the coming weeks. If Paul O’Connell, their marvellous captain, prevails in the last non-tournament Test of his 13-year international career, their confidence levels will be off the scale. And that will make them dangerous.