Just about the last thing a struggling line-out operation needs on the cusp of a World Cup is an aerial confrontation with Paul O’Connell and Devin Toner, so there will be plenty at stake for England’s senior forwards when the tournament hosts’ warm-up programme reaches its conclusion against Ireland at Twickenham on Saturday. Toner is 7ft tall, as near as damn it, and probably the most improved lock in Europe. O’Connell? If he improved any more, he’d be one of the best ever.
All things considered, then, there is plenty of heat on the Lions Test second-rower Geoff Parling, who, whether he likes it or not, is charged with the task of restoring one very important half of England’s set-piece game to its former glory after two rough outings against France.
“I knew this was coming,” Parling said on being asked, first up, about the declining red-rose fortunes in this most significant of areas. “I really don’t think there’s a big problem: it’s more a combination of small things that didn’t go well in those games. I still believe we’re a very good set-piece team, but it’s up to us to show it this weekend.
“I won’t be able to say we’re good if things turn crappy against Ireland, so while we’ve had a lot of flak come our way, I’m just thinking about the performance we’re capable of putting on.”
Like most technicians – and technically speaking, Parling knows as much about the moving parts of a line-out as anyone currently playing at Test level – the Exeter-bound forward has little patience with those who oversimplify matters in his chosen sphere.
He was keen to defend the hookers Luke Cowan-Dickie (who failed to make the World Cup squad) and Tom Youngs (who will start the tournament as the front-line No 2) after their trials and tribulations on the throwing front home and away against Les Bleus.
“It really does get to me that people always seem to blame the hookers,” he commented. “Sometimes it’s out of order. No matter how many times I say it’s not their fault, they’ll probably still get blamed. That’s life, I suppose, but it’s never just one area that’s the issue. You don’t suddenly become a poor set piece. I don’t think you do, anyway.
“Teams are putting a lot of emphasis on the line-out these days, especially at international level, and as it’s one of the elements of the game where you may have to change things depending on what the opposition are doing, there’s a lot to think about.
“But all we need is a few little fix-ups. The problem in our last match in Paris was one of momentum. We kept compounding errors.”
Ireland, coming off the back of a home defeat by Wales and every bit as reluctant as England to lose two on the bounce this close to a global jamboree, have not spared the horses in selection. They may be jiggling around in the outside-back department, with the wing Simon Zebo getting a run at full-back, but up front they have a deeply familiar look about them.
No one is more familiar than O’Connell, who may or may not be making his final Test appearance at Twickenham, depending on how the forthcoming tournament pans out for the Six Nations champions. A three-tour Lion with 103 Ireland caps to his name, he can be expected to present a major obstacle to England, as Parling readily acknowledged by saying: “You can see the impact he has on those around him. The guys in that Irish pack look up to Paul and I have nothing but praise for him. He’s unbelievable, as a character and as a player.”
Wales, one of England’s pool-stage opponents, are resting their most experienced second-rowers for Saturday’s match with Italy at the Millennium Stadium, but the flanker Sam Warburton is back as captain after sitting out last weekend’s victory in Dublin and there are also starts for the big guns in the back division – Leigh Halfpenny and George North, Dan Biggar and Rhys Webb.
The Azzurri, who are in something of a state after consecutive defeats by Scotland, have their kingpin No 8 Sergio Parisse in the middle of the back row.
As for the Scots, in high good humour after a productive warm-up programme, Saturday night’s meeting with France in Paris will be highly instructive.
Sean Maitland and Tommy Seymour return to outside-back duty after injury while John Hardie, the “kilted Kiwi” from New Zealand whose fast-track selection as back-rower has not been welcomed universally, will win his second cap at open-side flanker.Reuse content