England come into the final weekend of the 2012 Six Nations with 3 wins from 4, and are still in with a (massively outside) chance of winning the Championship. Credit must go to interim coach Stuart Lancaster for refocusing a side who endured a nightmare in New Zealand at RWC2011.
Lancaster’s team has been built upon a base of solid, physical defence. That much is clear from the fact that only Wales (3) have conceded less than England (4) in terms of tries. The English, with 487, have made more tackles than any other team in this year’s tournament. These stats are impressive, but don’t paint a completely accurate picture.
Scotland managed 9 clean line-breaks against England in their opening game, and only lost due to their inexcusable failure to finish those chances. Next up, the uninventive Italian side managed to cut through the English defence 3 times. Missed Italian place-kicks proved crucial in the end, as England squeezed home.
An improved performance at the Millenium Stadium followed, as England narrowly lost out to Scott Williams’ late try. Whether or not it had anything to do with the media hype over the size of their backline, Wales attempted to take England on in a bosh-fest. That completely played into the hands of this England side, who well capable of aggressive defence in that type of game.
Wales do have enormous physical attributes in their team, but they would have been better served by using their pace to get around England, rather than trying to run through them. Last weekend, France were frankly appalling in attack. Their lack of patience was hard to understand as Lionel Beauxis repeatedly kicked possession away. However, the introduction of Morgan Parra after 50 minutes made a huge difference and shows Ireland the way to attack England.
Parra brought tempo to the French game. He was quick to every ruck, firing the ball away as soon as possible. Even with England restored to fifteen men, after Sharples’ sin-binning, Parra’s rapid delivery helped France to make inroads, with the pace of Wesley Fofana benefiting in particular as he made several line-breaks.
Eoin Reddan’s role tomorrow will be crucial. His most important quality is said to be his quick service, and we will need to play off it. England are suited to a slowed-down, physical game. When the tempo increases and the faster players (Keith Earls) get quick ball, they look less comfortable. Ireland have to play with as high a tempo as possible. That should suit Johnny Sexton, who always looks better when he has less time to make decisions.
Attack is where England have really struggled. Omitting the weak Italian team, England have the least carries, line-breaks, defenders beaten, meters gained and offloads of any team in the Six Nations so far. The one table that England are top of is ‘kicking from hand’ which they have done 113 times in 4 games. Against France, many of Farrell’s kicks were loose and aimless. Rob Kearney will be willing the English to kick to him in this manner.
Ireland’s defence has improved in every game of this campaign, and it needs to be stepped up again tomorrow. Stephen Ferris must back up his antagonistic words by leading an aggressive Irish defence. England play off outhalf Owen Farrell a lot, with forwards running lines inside him, or Tuilagi and Barritt taking switches or skip passes from the 20-year-old. Ireland’s line speed can shut this uninventive play down, and turn defence into attack.
Farrell has had an impressive debut tournament, and does look to have decent mental strength. However, The Touchline feels that Farrell can be ‘got at’. Not through targeting him in defence (his tackling is excellent), but through getting in his face, abusing him, looking to get him involved in scraps. If Donncha O’Callaghan serves any particular purpose to this Irish team, then surely this is it. Chris Ashton is another who has looked close to losing the plot on occasion this season, and Ireland must look to provoke the winger.
Ben Morgan has emerged as a key man for England, and he put in a superb effort against France, making Foden’s try. He’s a destructive ball-carrier and Ireland have to cut him down early. The No.8 has displayed good offloading skills so we may have to double up in taking him out of the game. Similarly, Tuilagi is real handful in the centre. Earls’ defence has been surprisingly effective so far this season, and will have to be at those levels again tomorrow.
There’s no outstanding reason for Ireland to fear this English side. As Alan Quinlan’s superb column revealed this week, Irish players have become used to beating England. By playing at a high tempo, supporting Kearney’s counter-attacks and coming up aggressively off the defensive line, Ireland should maintain their impressive recent record over the English.
Photos courtesy: Nigel Snell.