Brian Ashton: Ireland need to tidy up kicking and handling to cope with English
Tackling The Issues
Saturday 19 March 2011
Il momento della verita! Well, why shouldn't we dip into the Italian language, in celebration of their ground-breaking victory over France in Rome last weekend? Besides, the moment of truth is certainly upon England as we arrive at the end of this year's Six Nations journey. The opportunity to win a first title in eight years – and a title of the Grand Slam variety at that – does not present itself too frequently, and while Welsh chances of stealing the prize are still intact as we speak, most eyes will be firmly fixed on events in Dublin.
The Aviva Stadium, as we must now refer to Lansdowne Road, will take a good many years to match the deep sense of history and overwhelming air of sporting passion we associate with Croke Park, the temporary home of Irish rugby in recent years, but the home players need to lay some foundations there, and this evening's game is as good a place as any to start. Looking at it from a purely objective viewpoint, they have nothing to lose. Out of the running for a Triple Crown and off the pace in championship terms, they are in the uncomplicated position of being able to throw everything at England, just for the hell of it. Martin Johnson's team can expect a tempestuous challenge.
Yet if Ireland are still aggrieved at the mind-boggling ineptitude of the officials in awarding Mike Phillips that try in the second half of last week's game in Cardiff, they will go into this game with entirely the wrong mindset. The Millennium Stadium affair is now firmly in the past, and there is no earthly point in players allowing the injustice to eat away at their spirit.
Whatever the great Brian O'Driscoll may have said on the subject since, one fact is staring the Irish in the face: they will have to up their performance significantly if they are to compete strongly against England tonight. They must retain their aggression, but must also show more clarity around the tackle area while cutting down on their core-skill errors. By the impressive standards of recent years, their handling and kicking has been shoddy.
In my view, the key battle will be fought among the tight forwards, and the men in green will have to work hard to establish the parity that will allow their impressive back row to play on the front foot, both with and without the ball, and the midfield – a misfiring but potent unit – to maximise the wide threat posed by Keith Earls, Tommy Bowe and Andrew Trimble.
That parity will take some achieving; indeed, the much-vaunted Irish lock pairing of Donncha O'Callaghan and Paul O'Connell will have to rejuvenate themselves if they are to do the necessary. The young English front row is maturing by the week – I have been particularly impressed by Dylan Hartley and his confident way of dealing with verbal attacks from two opposing coaches – while Louis Deacon is playing the best Test rugby of his life. As for Tom Palmer, his stint in Paris with Stade Français has been transformative. As we know, other players may be denied the chance to broaden their horizons in this way post-World Cup. I have voiced my concern on this issue more than once. Suffice to say, I have not changed my mind on the subject.
England have earned the right to enjoy this occasion. Having won their "semi-final" against Scotland – just – their approach should be wholly positive. The results-obsessed rugby public, not to mention the media, may think otherwise, but by reaching a place not visited by an England side for some considerable time they have already achieved something of significance. Of course, expectation is high, but as Martin Johnson has consistently argued, this is the case whenever a team from this country challenges for a big prize in any sport. I believe the pressure will be in the eyes of the beholders, not the players.
Those with the chance to go out there and complete the job must concentrate first and foremost on the process formulated and developed over the last nine months. Technically, physically and mentally, they must be on their mettle and they must also ensure they are smarter than they were against the Scots. The approach at the tackle area is one thing that will need re-addressing, especially in terms of the numbers engaged there. This can never be set in stone; rather, it depends wholly on how people are planning to manage the next phase of play. But the first principle is to win the ball, and there were times during the Calcutta Cup match when England got this wrong.
I cannot see Ireland standing back and letting England play, so the ability to cope with a pressuring defence will be vital. For years now, O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy have been outstanding at cutting down space in midfield and pilfering the ball, and O'Driscoll, in particular, loves to lead the defensive line umbrella-fashion from the No 13 channel. There is an answer to this, though, as Fourie du Preez and Bryan Habana, those two high-class Springboks, showed us during the 2009 Lions tour.
The optimum approach for England revolves around what I call the rugby of simplicity. Against an in-your-face kind of team, they should bring their driving and mauling to the party and resist the temptation to offload at the wrong time. The offload is a powerful weapon, but attempting it off the back foot does no one any favours. Also, in the absence of a kicking game at centre, I'd like Ben Youngs to use his talents in this area from scrum-half. By kicking from phase play, exploiting space in centre field and on the wide short-side, he would provide a foil for Toby Flood in the 10 position and find ways of confronting an expectant Irish defence with the unexpected.
If they can do all this, I take England to shade it.
Whatever Wales do, I'll always treasure the lost art of Williams
Neutral observers will be paying close attention to this evening's developments in Paris, not least because the remarkable public observations about the French players made by their head coach, Marc Lièvremont, in the immediate aftermath of defeat in Rome were not obviously designed to create a happy atmosphere in the dressing room.
Of course, it would be typical of Les Bleus to summon their most flamboyant rugby from the dark depths of despair. There again, Wales are suddenly winning the close games they were losing not so long ago. I won't predict a winner, but I will say this: I am bitterly disappointed that Shane Williams, that most captivating of wings, is injured, and will be absent from his own Six Nations farewell.
In a game increasingly dominated by the products of the sports scientists, he has consistently reminded us that it is the rugby artist who raises our sport to its heights. His breed may be heading for extermination, more's the pity, but I for one shall treasure the memory of him.
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