Brian Ashton: Ireland need to tidy up kicking and handling to cope with English

Tackling The Issues

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.

Win an exclusive Doom Bar t-shirt!

Do you think you know your rugby? Do you want to make your voice heard? Do you want to win a sharp Sharp's t-shirt?

Tell us what you think about the state of the game in the comments below, and you could be in with a shot at winning a particularly snazzy Doom Bar t-shirt. Over the next month, Online sports editor Simon Rice will be watching the comments under Brian Ashton's Saturday columns like a hawk, looking out for the most interesting, thoughtful and provocative comments from readers. Is Brian on the money, or is he talking nonsense? What's wrong with the England team, who's going to win the Premier League, and are New Zealand really unbeatable?

Then after a month's heated debate, Simon will pick his favourite comment to win that coveted shirt. What are you waiting for? Put the rugby world to rights.

Entrants must be aged 18 or over. Terms and conditions apply.

If you have any problems posting your comments, you can also email your entry to onlinecompetitions@independent.co.uk

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
Starting the day with a three-egg omelette could make people more charitable, according to new research
science
News
Top Gun actor Val Kilmer lost his small claims court battle in Van Nuys with the landlord of his Malibu mansion to get back his deposit after wallpapering over the kitchen cabinets
people
News
Comedian Ted Robbins collapsed on stage during a performance of Phoenix Nights Live at Manchester Arena (Rex)
people
News
The actress Geraldine McEwan was perhaps best known for playing Agatha Christie's detective, Miss Marple (Rex)
peopleShe won a Bafta in 1991 for her role in Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit
News
newsPatrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
News
Robert Fraser, aka Groovy Bob
peopleA new show honours Robert Fraser, one of the era's forgotten players
Life and Style
Torsten Sherwood's Noook is a simple construction toy for creating mini-architecture
tech
Sport
David Silva celebrates with Sergio Aguero after equalising against Chelsea
footballChelsea 1 Manchester City 1
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

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

Career Services

Day In a Page

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

Homeless Veterans appeal

The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

How books can defeat Isis

Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

Young carers to make dance debut

What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

Design Council's 70th anniversary

Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

Dame Harriet Walter interview

The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

Bill Granger's winter salads

Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links