Ireland vs England: Big-game winners can start on the bench and England could well regret not taking Danny Care - Brian Smith

The former England attack coach previews the Six Nations contest

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Two unbeaten teams in the market for a Grand Slam confidence booster ahead of the World Cup; an electric atmosphere guaranteed in one of the most passionate rugby cities on the planet; a growing tendency towards single-score victories in ultra-tight contests… under the circumstances, it’s pretty difficult to pick a winner ahead of the big event in Dublin on Sunday. Which is why I find it hard to believe that England are travelling to Ireland without Danny Care in their squad.

Toss-of-a-coin matches like this are often won off the bench, so if I’d had a say in England selection, I’d have included the Harlequins scrum-half on my roster.

If ever a bloke was designed to make a difference in the last 20 minutes of an evenly balanced game, Care is the man. He possesses in spades what opponents dread the most – serious speed, allied to a sharp eye for the quarter-chance – and he has something to prove to the management, having gone from senior No 9 to third in line in the space of a few short weeks either side of Christmas.

We know, because the England coaches frequently tell us, that the current bench half-back, Richard Wigglesworth of Saracens, is as good as anyone and better than most when it comes to putting the ball on a sixpence with his tactical kicking and shutting things down in the closing stages. But there’s an assumption at work here – that England will be ahead in those closing stages. What happens in Dublin if they’re not? Who would be the best man to chase the game? A game-controller like Wigglesworth, or a game-breaker like Care?

For this contest, of all contests, I’d have gone with the attacking option: partly because with an outside-half magician like Danny Cipriani among the substitutes, England would look really scary off the bench with Care alongside him; and partly because there is no obvious risk attached to playing the bold card.


Ben Youngs, the first-choice No 9, is performing so well right now he could easily do a job for the full 80 minutes if that’s what the situation demands. Care would have given Stuart Lancaster’s team something different, something that might have messed with a few Irish heads.

It may be they will regret going safe. Even though they have the scrummaging power to rule the roost at the set piece, I’m not sure it will give them the decisive advantage they seek. To begin with, Ireland aren’t the worst scrummagers themselves. Just as importantly, referees at international level are more reluctant to reward the dominant scrum with shots at goal than those running the show in the Premiership. Tony Spreadbury, the man in charge of officials in the English club game, is pretty hot on penalising packs who find themselves struggling in this area. Joël Jutge, the Frenchman who controls things in the Test arena, seems to have called off the dogs.

And then there’s the challenge of dealing with Ireland’s areas of strength – the line-out, the kicking game, the so-called “choke tackle”, in which the Rory Bests and Paul O’Connells and Sean O’Briens secure turnover ball by holding up opponents in the tackle rather than taking them to ground. When they get the “choke” right, especially early in an opposition attack, they can be a complete nightmare.

I was interested to see how Ireland approached their game against France a fortnight ago. Instead of opting for the early box-kick in time-honoured fashion, they held back for two or three phases as a means of moving a heavy opposition pack around the field and asking questions of their fitness. If Stuart and his coaching colleagues have planned on this basis, they may be in for a surprise. Ireland will expect England to be fitter than the French and could well change tack as a consequence.

On balance, I take England to play the bolder rugby because they’re full of belief, having scored eight tries to Ireland’s two in the championship to date. By comparison, the home side are likely to be relatively unambitious: their coach, Joe Schmidt, strikes me as a conservative perfectionist rather than a dice roller.

But the Irish do have Jonathan Sexton at outside-half, and right now it’s hard not to award him the title of the world’s best No 10. “What about Dan Carter of New Zealand?” I hear you ask. To be honest, Carter is just hanging on these days. Sexton is the man in his pomp – the man in full command of his gifts.

Talking of gifted rugby players, I offer you this as a parting shot. Is Sam Burgess beginning to wonder whether he was right to abandon a stellar career in league for a whole new ball game in union? I watched the World Club Series game between St Helens and the South Sydney Rabbitohs on television last week, and who should be in the crowd but Slammin’ Sam. I thought I could see the cogs beginning to turn in his mind. Was it a “God, what have I done?” moment. Just a thought.


Brian Smith is a former England attack coach