Some stereotypes are hard to shake off. The popular view of matches between England and Ireland has long been based on the idea that the Irish need no encouragement to stick it to their opponents, for reasons rooted in the history of relations between the two countries. I had my own taste of this fixture’s unique flavour when I played for Ireland in the early 1990s. Even now, my good friend and fellow Australian Les Kiss tells me that the Irish boys grow extra arms and legs when this contest comes around – and he should know, being their defence coach.
I’m not denying that there’s still an edge to these games: as I’ve pointed out in these pages more than once, England’s imperial past ensures they will never be short of enemies on the sports field. But at the same time, I think Saturday’s game at Twickenham – an absolute cracker in the making – has a different feel to it, a different dynamic. Why? Because there is more to this Irish team than a burning desire to put one over the big country across the water. In European rugby terms, they are a pretty big country themselves.
Back in the days when I played Five Nations matches against England, there was definitely an inferiority complex at work. We’d look at Rob Andrew strutting around, Brian Moore growling away like a pitbull terrier, Wade Dooley glowering at us from a great height … and on seeing this, virtually all the players would work themselves into a complete frenzy. And then, early in the second half, we’d run out of puff. It was around that time that the top southern hemisphere nations started getting really serious about physical conditioning, and England were quick on the uptake. It wasn’t the case in Ireland, if I’m being honest.
But that was then. In recent years, Irish rugby has got its act together: they have won a Grand Slam, been seriously competitive against the very best sides in the world and enjoyed regular success at Heineken Cup level. All that momentum counts for something, which is why I believe they start today’s game as favourites.
Here are a few points in support of that assertion. To begin with, Ireland are vastly more experienced than England, who, it should be remembered, have next to no caps in their threequarter line. It’s also worth mentioning at this juncture that with their big-name players performing well, not least Jonny Sexton at outside-half, they have just about the best back division in the northern hemisphere – a back division developing still further under Joe Schmidt, who has made quite an impact as head coach.
In addition, they will be helped by Dan Cole’s absence from the England front row, and by the fact that their own improvement up front means they are now extremely capable at scrum, line-out and maul – all areas that are considered to be English strengths. I’m also pretty sure that they have the mental application to rise above recent defeats in this fixture: a heavy one at Twickenham in 2012 and a bitterly disappointing one in Dublin this time last year. When I spoke to Tomas O’Leary, our scrum-half at London Irish, about this a couple of days ago, he said that so many of the Ireland players had won big games over here at Heineken Cup level over the last couple of seasons that there was not even the trace of a fear factor.
It seems to me that the Irish are approaching this as the key game in their Six Nations campaign – that they think another Grand Slam will be within touching distance if they can get themselves a result today. There is also the Brian O’Driscoll ingredient to throw into the mix, although I’m not sure it will play as big a part in the Irish mindset as many imagine. Yes, he’s retiring at the end of the season; yes, this is his last show at Twickenham. But there are a lot of big figures in that changing room and he’s just one of them. I don’t believe for a second that they will make the mistake of putting him at the centre of everything.
From what I hear, Schmidt is right on top of the “O’Driscoll cult” stuff and handling it with considerable intelligence. Which is no more than I’d expect from a New Zealander with a background in teaching. He talks sense, he’s straight to the point, he’s well organised and he’s a good manager of people. Stuart Lancaster comes from similar stock and has similar gifts. Is Schmidt the visionary guru some people make him out to be? I guess we’ll see soon enough. At this stage, it’s enough to say that he’s made an extremely positive start with a gifted bunch of players.
Talking of which, I’m pleased to see George Ford involved in the England squad at last. As I said before the Calcutta Cup match a fortnight ago, the risk of playing a Test without a specialist outside-half on the bench is not one I would contemplate taking. What is more, there are things England need to discover about Ford with a World Cup looming on the horizon, things they cannot hope to find out if he spends all his time on the training field.
Brian Smith is the director of rugby at London Irish and a former England attack coach