Ireland must avoid another 'Scrumgate' in hunt for glory
Last Saturday’s victory in Cardiff was a moment and a spectacle to savour for Irish rugby but the stakes will be even higher in the Aviva on Sunday, a win and Ireland will not only be favourites for the championship but can dream of another Grand Slam.
After a rather forgettable affair in 2012, last weekend’s opening round of games served up the perfect reminder of just how captivating Six Nations rugby can be.
A six-try thriller in the Millennium Stadium was topped by a fearless Italian victory over France in Rome which has deliciously set up Sunday’s showdown with England.
It’s not quite winner takes all, but it’s a massive eighty minutes in the context of the championship.
Three tries, a master class from O’Driscoll, a steady scrum and control from Sexton at 10, more of the same wouldn’t go amiss this weekend.
But England present a very different challenge to Wales and as Declan Kidney rightly insisted, the same plan wouldn’t work against England even though he has chosen the same personnel.
The blueprint for English rugby hasn’t changed under Lancaster, the emphasis remains on a hugely physical, bruising pack which takes particular pride in the scrum.
With Martin Johnson at the helm that appetite for physical dominance often spread into the backline. When their Grand Slam dreams were halted on their last Six Nations outing in Dublin the midfield pairing was Shontayne Hape and Matt Banahan.
But England have always been best when that power up front, which sets such a solid platform, is mixed with some guile in the backs; the likes of Johnny Wilkinson, Will Greenwood, Jason Robinson, Jeremy Guscott.
Lancaster’s selection of Billy Twelvetrees over Manu Tuilagi suggests he has opted for the more creative attacking option by playing two young and inexperienced kickers at 10 and 12.
However one has to believe that if Manu Tuilagi was firing on all cylinders he would have been the first name on the team sheet.
It’s true that Twelvetrees and Owen Farrell combined seamlessly in their first international outing against the Scots last weekend, but that does not change the fact that Tuilagi has been England’s most potent attacking weapon over the past two seasons.
The gamble of course would have been to play both Twelvetrees and Tuilagi, mix the flare with muscle, but that would have meant sacrificing his defensive rock Brad Barritt.
Ireland’s midfield hasn’t always come up with the answers when the big bruisers have come bursting through. Cast your mind back to Tuilagi’s canter to the try line in August 2011 or Jonathan Davies' five pointer at the Aviva last season, created by George North breaking through two Irish tacklers.
The significance of D’Arcy’s recovery in time for Sunday hinged on defence, within three minutes of the veteran centre’s departure last weekend Alex Cuthbert crossed for Wales’ opening try after a misjudgement by Keith Earls.
Declan Kidney and his staff won’t be upset to see Tuilagi on the bench on Sunday nor will they be naive enough to expect him to stay there for eighty minutes.
With so much at stake in Sunday’s encounter Lions pecking order cannot be considered any more than a footnote, but there are some tantalising match-ups in store, none more so than at flyhalf.
England’s rising superstar Farrell will go toe-to-toe with Johnny Sexton, the man who has managed to fill Ronan O’Gara’s shoes and the frontrunner for the red number 10 jersey this summer.
Farrell has looked ice-cool over the dead ball this season and will feel he has the edge on his Irish counterpart in the goal-kicking department.
But Sexton is no rising star; he’s a 27-year-old who has just made a historic big-money move to a French club with huge ambition. He has three Heineken Cup winners medals. He is at the peak of his game and has the experience.
If Sexton believes he is worthy of that Lions jersey he needs to prove it by outplaying a young flyhalf who has spent much of his professional career at inside centre.
The nation will collectively hold its breath when referee Jerome Garces whistles for the afternoon’s first scrum. Much has been made about Ireland’s improvements in the scrum, well Sunday is the acid test.
It is one year on from ‘Scrumgate’ at Twickenham.
A game which shone the international rugby spotlight on Ireland’s scrum, exposed a humiliating lack of cover at tighthead, prompted an immediate hunt for a scrum coach and started the chain of events which saw Michael Bent, an unknown quantity from New Zealand, parachuted into the Ireland squad before he’d even had a chance to prove himself with Leinster.
The Irish front row will take encouragement from their steady showing in Cardiff last weekend against seasoned scrummagers Gethin Jenkins, Matthew Rees and Adam Jones.
But things won’t get any easier on Sunday when they collide with youngster Joe Marler, who caused trouble in the scrum for Scotland’s Euan Murray, Tom Youngs who is keeping Dylan Hartley out of the team and favourite for the Lions number 3 jersey Dan Cole.
If Ireland can make an impression in the opening few scrums it will be a massive psychological boost, if they can force a couple of penalties from the set piece it could get referee Garces on their side and defuse one of England’s primary threats.
If they crumble in the opening scrum it will have the opposite effect, placing doubt in the Irish minds and convincing the English that the same weakness is there to be exploited.
The conditions could play a key role, if the predicted rain and wind makes its appearance on Sunday it could play into the English game plan, allowing them to keep things tight and try and pressurise the Irish set piece.
Ireland coughed up almost twice as many penalties as Wales last weekend, similar indiscipline against England in tricky conditions could result in an afternoon of kicking practise for young Farrell.
England may have the power and the exciting youth but experience counts for so much at this level. Last weekend Brian O’Driscoll spearheaded the Irish assault with the likes of Healy, Ryan and O’Brien also putting in inspirational showings. Barring a disaster in the set-piece it should be a home win.
Ireland 25 England 17