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England setting Twickenham traps as Ireland's rolling maul packs a passport

Hookers Rory Best and Dylan Hartley hold the line-out keys for setting some devastating set-pieces in motion.

Ireland's rolling maul led to the scoring of 20 points against Wales and caused untold trouble for Scotland.
Ireland's rolling maul led to the scoring of 20 points against Wales and caused untold trouble for Scotland.
Image: ©INPHO/Billy Stickland

WARREN GATLAND INSISTED his team knew what was coming when they faced Ireland yet the reigning champions were powerless to prevent it. The Irish rolling maul directly led to 20 points in their 26-3 win over Wales.

It was a weapon utilised to devastating effect against hapless Scotland in the opening weekend of Six Nations fixtures but Wales’ powerful forwards were expected to negate the threat. Ireland tested the mauling waters as early as the eighth minute as Devin Toner claimed line-out ball. The Welsh conceded a penalty and Ireland sensed weakness.

England coach Stuart Lancaster had his starting XV from the away win over Scotland in camp as early as 12 February. Rugby fans can be sure that the English forwards were drilled extensively about Ireland’s battering ram.

“It is something we are much more comfortable using,” said Ireland hooker Rory Best. “It is something we have worked very hard on. We showed bits and pieces of it in previous campaigns but we’ve obviously been much more consistent this year.

The flip-side of it is that no-one expected Ireland to maul. Now that we’ve mauled successfully a number of times, teams are going to be expecting that. With that, there is now an extra challenge and level where we have to be even more accurate than we have been this season.”

“It’s a massive challenge but one we are looking forward to. This is a big England pack and one that will expect us to be good in the maul. We have to make sure we live up to, and exceed, that expectation,” Best added.

The man who will be tasked to pick his line-out jumpers for the opposition should be — selection shocks aside — Dylan Hartley. The Northampton hooker unintentionally made room for Best in last year’s Lions squad for directing a torrent of abusive comments at referee Wayne Barnes in the Premiership final.

Best said, “Hartley has shown, this season in particular, what a good player he is. we’ve played against him a few times now and he’s a very tough, uncompromising player. You’d expect no different this weekend.”

“He has definitely brought a different edge to his game now; he’s right on that limit without going across it. That is something he has been guilty of in the past. He digressed a bit at the end of last season and it cost him a massive honour. He’s learned from that and you can see that from the way he is playing this year. There is no doubting his rugby ability and he is really focused on that this year.”

Rory Best 17/2/2014 Source: ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan

Having trained under England assistant coach Graham Rowntree on his two-month stint as a British and Irish Lion, Best is expecting the former England prop to prepare a warm welcome or two for the Six Nations table-toppers.

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“He was a front row forward when he played, with a very physical Leicester team. That’s his grounding. That’s what you can expect from his players when they go out on Saturday. There has been a lot made of our maul so he’s probably going to make a point of destroying that. He’s very big on domination. You dominate up front, you win the game. He’s made no secret of that and he’ll be drumming it into them all week.”

Best concedes that there was ‘an air of uncertainty’ about Ireland’s ability to put in consistent, intense performances following the November Series and is happy that, after opening wins over Scotland and Wales, some of the doubters are fading away. “We’re aware that this is our first away game with Joe [Schmidt] and, with that, there is a bit of uncertainty.

“Internationals are tough games to win and they are even tougher to win away from home. But, with the players we have, we’ve got confidence. At the same time, we’re cautious because we know what England can do. They’ve beaten us the last few times and there comes an element of why they’ve done that. They’ve dominated us up front.”

One doubt that lingers, due to the ruthlessness of Ireland’s Six Nations start, is the side’s ability to close out tight games. “Most of the time when you go away in the Six Nations and win,” said Best, “it is a one-score game. There are exceptions but we know it going to come down to our last few games and the impact of our bench.

“Our bench has been very good in the Six Nations and we’re going to need that again. It’s going to take a lot of mettle, a lot of resolve, but it’s something we believe we have been building.”

The Ulster hooker has an even split of career wins over England [four wins, four defeats] but only lost once to them over his first five Test encounters. With Paul O’Connell, Brian O’Driscoll and Gordon D’Arcy all present and fit for duty, Best says there are plenty of hands on deck to regale the younger brigade with ‘How to win at Twickenham’ tales.

He commented, “In my early Ireland career we went to England quite a few times and won. We beat them at the old Lansdowne Road a few times. There’s still a few people around that know what it’s like to beat England. You can impart that information — yes it’s not impossible but it is very, very tough.”

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Patrick McCarry

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