I'm the first to admit it: two years ago, when England last went to Lansdowne Road for a Six Nations game, we finished a very distant second. We were thumped, hijacked, banjoed… there are 100 different ways of putting it and they all amount to the same thing. I'll make another admission, while I'm at it. Those of us in the coaching team set the wrong tone for that game by playing it too cool. We should have gone out of our way to put the sting into the situation, not take the sting out of it.
During my time as a Six Nations coach I found these matches in Dublin to be the juiciest fixtures in the tournament. I referred last week to a comment by the Ireland defence coach Les Kiss, who told me that his players seemed to "grow another leg" when they were up against the English, and I've never had any reason to disagree with him. When you put 15 Irishmen in an international dressing room and tell them England's finest are next door, 500 years of history seem to come alive for them.
So often this is the game that brings out the best in the Irish – the one that makes them feel extra special about wearing the green shirt. If the England players, and indeed the coaches, don't get their heads around the fact that they are heading into something far more than a mere rugby contest, they will be at serious risk.
Back in 2011, there was even more hype than usual around the game, for the simple reason that we were going to Dublin with four wins in the bag and a Grand Slam within touching distance. We coaches took the view that the last thing we needed to do was crank things up even more. "Let's not over-dramatise this," we agreed. "We have some pretty young blokes in the team. Let's keep things in perspective."
In retrospect, it was a bad call. There was a big intensity gap at the start of the match and the Irish players gave it to us with a vengeance. They had worked themselves up emotionally and seemed to draw on vast reserves of energy. Our party was well and truly pooped. When we left town, everyone in the coaching team felt that if we could have had our time again, we wouldn't have gone down the "cool, calm, collected" route.
In a way, we had our time again later in the year. Our preparations for the World Cup warm-up game against Ireland, also in Dublin, were very different – the polar opposite, in fact – and absolutely right. Of course, there were no comparisons to be made in the status of the fixture. All the same, we looked on it as payback time. We wanted to go back over there and shove it down their throats.
Which we did, largely because the emotional dynamic was in our favour rather than theirs. There was a second reason, I guess: a young player by the name of Manu Tuilagi had just come into our side, and he turned in a performance that put him fairly and squarely on the international rugby map. But I believe the main lesson to be drawn from the two games under discussion was the importance of competing early. If you go to Dublin on the big occasion with the conservative intention of weathering the storm – of simply hanging in there for the first 20 minutes – you stand a very good chance of being smacked. If you go in with the mindset of blowing Ireland away and reaching the end of the first quarter with parity or better, you have a base on which to build a performance.
I was impressed by England last weekend. They started well, then showed the resilience to respond positively to an early counter-attacking try from the Scots and dominate from there on in. They were clearly the more powerful team and I detected added layers of confidence and belief, drawn, I would suggest, from the outstanding victory over the All Blacks before Christmas.
Elsewhere in the Six Nations, I've noticed a widespread writing-off of the French in the aftermath of their defeat in Rome. Yes, their performance against the Italians was very poor indeed, to the extent that one or two players may be on borrowed time at Test level. But I don't buy the idea that they're out of the reckoning. French rugby being what it is, the team will be under intense pressure to deliver some big performances – and with games against Wales and England on the immediate horizon, that makes them dangerous.
Talking of the Italians, I guess their occasional Six Nations victories will continue to be defined by the inadequacies of their opponents until they start winning some matches away from their own capital. That may sound harsh, but it's the reality. Yet, having said that, they are showing clear signs of developing an attacking game significantly more potent than anything we've seen to date. They're still playing their home matches on a narrow football pitch, which suits their general style, but now they are finding their way over the opposition line more often – during the autumn series, as well as last week – it may not be long before we judge their triumphs purely on merit.
Brian Smith is rugby director at London Irish and the former England attack coach. His fee for this article has been donated to Great Ormond Street Hospital.
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