Six Nations: England v Ireland - hosts have more to fear than Brian O’Driscoll’s parting shot at Twickenham

The celebrated Irish centre’s championship record on the old cabbage patch is nicely in credit

Rugby Union Correspondent

When Brian O’Driscoll – you’ll have heard of the man, surely – takes the field at Twickenham on Saturday afternoon, he will be one step ahead of the game.

The celebrated Irish centre’s championship record on the old cabbage patch is nicely in credit, with three memorable victories between 2004 and 2010 to set against two heavy defeats in the early Noughties, and if things go badly wrong this time and another Grand Slam challenge goes up in smoke, he will at least finish the series on level par. Not that he gives a damn about statistics, vital or otherwise.

The 35-year-old Dubliner – the only European outside back of the professional era to whom the overused word “great” might legitimately be applied – could have won all five of his previous encounters on this particular rectangle of London mud and still be more desperate to win than the rest of the Ireland team put together.

It has nothing to do with it being his final appearance at Twickenham, although that little detail is not without an emotional force all of its own. It has everything to do with the fact that Ireland will be hot favourites for a Six Nations clean sweep if they can find a way past an England team long on togetherness but alarmingly short on experience.

O’Driscoll’s direct opponent today is the Northampton midfielder Luther Burrell, and while the Yorkshireman has shown considerable promise over the first two rounds of this tournament, it cannot be argued that we are comparing apples with apples. While the Irishman is about to equal the international caps record set by the Wallaby scrum-half George Gregan between 1994 and 2007 – the small matter of 139, including eight for the British & Irish Lions – his rival starts the match a mere 136 behind. What is more, Burrell is still learning the ropes in the No 13 position, having played most of his serious rugby as an inside centre rather than one of the outside variety.

Ireland’s Brian O’Driscoll will equal the international caps record when he steps out at Twickenham today Ireland’s Brian O’Driscoll will equal the international caps record when he steps out at Twickenham today (Getty Images) If England are already sick to the back teeth of O’Driscoll talk – all week, they have been bombarded with questions on the subject of one individual’s role in a 30-man game – they have done an excellent job in not letting on. Indeed, the red-rose forwards coach, Graham Rowntree, could not have been more complimentary when the subject cropped up during his eve-of-match address.

“What spoke volumes for the man was how he reacted to being left out of the Lions team for the last Test in Australia a few months ago,” said the old Leicester hard-head, who played under O’Driscoll in All Black country in 2005 and has since worked with him twice as a member of British Isles coaching panels. “The afternoon he was dropped, he was to be found sitting down with the people who had been selected ahead of him, going through a few technical things on the computer. He’s incredibly diligent.”

Rowntree and the rest of the England think-tankers are every bit as assiduous when it comes to preparation and they reached the conclusion long ago that, for all O’Driscoll’s resourcefulness, the most significant threat to England today will come from the Ireland midfield as a whole. Jonathan Sexton, another member of the Leinster glitterati until he joined the Parisian side Racing Metro back in the summer, is by common consent the most complete outside-half in the northern hemisphere; Gordon D’Arcy, every bit as long-serving as O’Driscoll, is no one’s idea of a mug. Given some half-decent possession, these three will ask some very serious questions of Owen Farrell, Billy Twelvetrees and Burrell, and if no answers are forthcoming, an Irish victory will be guaranteed.

England’s strongest card should be the one they play up front, where they have a pack full of aces. Joe Marler, the entertainingly coiffeured loose-head prop from Harlequins, is in prime form; the ball-carrying dynamism of Dylan Hartley and Billy Vunipola should count for plenty at close quarters; the fast-developing partnership between Joe Launchbury and Courtney Lawes in the second row is likely to trump anything the Irish have to offer, Paul O’Connell or no Paul O’Connell.

Graham Rowntree knows that Ireland’s biggest threat comes from their midfield Graham Rowntree knows that Ireland’s biggest threat comes from their midfield (Getty Images) But even here, the visitors have the capacity to respond aggressively. Cian Healy, the energetic front-rower from Clontarf, has prospered under the scrum protocols introduced at the start of the season; Peter O’Mahony’s turnover work at the breakdown has marked him out as one of the players of the tournament; and the Irish pack’s collective expertise in two areas – the so-called “choke tackle” and the driving maul – is, as Rowntree admitted, “something to be addressed”.

The coach openly agreed that England will have no choice but to flood the tackle area – to make the breakdown a “numbers game” – in an effort to cramp O’Mahony’s style. The mobility of Launchbury and Lawes will be of significant help in this regard, but when all is said and done, the fight for the loose ball against opponents as lean and hungry as the Irish is either a mass effort involving everyone, or it is not an effort worth making.

In Dublin last February, England won a tight, wet-weather match against the odds – a victory that seemed to mark a rite of passage. But things have changed radically since then: Ireland have the influential O’Connell back at the heart of their pack and can point to at least two players, O’Mahony and the scrum-half Conor Murray, who are playing infinitely better rugby than they were a year ago. By contrast, the red-rose side has shed experience by the bucket-load: Chris Ashton and Brad Barritt are suddenly nowhere to be seen; Dan Cole, Geoff Parling and James Haskell are also off the team sheet.

Stuart Lancaster, the England head coach, has spent his entire international coaching career fielding combinations of players who cannot begin to compete with the opposition in terms of know-how, and the gap today will be more of a chasm. If the home side stand firm in the face of O’Driscoll and his force-of-nature momentum here, it will be a highly significant achievement.

Key confrontations: Who will rule at Twickenham?

Owen Farrell v Jonny Sexton The No 10s struck up a friendship on last summer’s British and Irish Lions tour, but there will be no arms around shoulders today. Hands around necks, more like.

Both men are ferociously competitive and if England’s Farrell is the more naturally aggressive, he will need all his resourcefulness to match his rival’s considerable range of skills.

David Wilson v Cian Healy Under normal circumstances, Bath’s Wilson would be less than terrified of the in-form Irishman in the scrum. But with so little recent rugby behind him – a mere 47 minutes since before Christmas – he looks unusually vulnerable.

Tom Wood v Peter O’Mahony There are connoisseurs splashing out £80 on a ticket, just to watch this contest within a contest. The two hard-nut flankers may be thoroughly modern professionals, but there is more than a touch of old school about them.

German supporters (left) and Argentina fans
world cup 2014Final gives England fans a choice between to old enemies
Arts and Entertainment
Armando Iannucci, the creator of 'The Thick of It' says he has
tvArmando Iannucci to concentrate on US show Veep
Life and Style
Pepper, the 3ft 11in shiny box of circuits who can tell jokes and respond to human emotions
techDavid McNeill tests the mettle of one of the new generation of androids being developed in Tokyo
Arts and Entertainment
A still from the worldwide Dawn of the Planet of the Apes trailer debut
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Four ski officials in Slovenia have been suspended following allegations of results rigging
sportFour Slovenian officials suspended after allegations they helped violinist get slalom place
14 March 2011: George Clooney testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during a hearing titled 'Sudan and South Sudan: Independence and Insecurity.' Clooney is co-founder of the Satellite Sentinel Project which uses private satellites to collect evidence of crimes against civilian populations in Sudan
Arts and Entertainment
Balaban is indirectly responsible for the existence of Downton Abbey, having first discovered Julian Fellowes' talents as a screenwriter
tvCast members told to lose weight after snacking on set
Life and Style
More than half of young adults have engaged in 'unwanted but consensual sexting with a committed partner,' according to research
Life and Style
A binge is classed as four or more alcoholic drinks for women and five or more for men, consumed over a roughly two-hour period
Caption competition
Caption competition
Daily World Cup Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice