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
Saturday 22 February 2014
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 (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 (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.
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