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Dublin: 9°C Tuesday 11 May 2021

Spying, Connect 4, Vunipolas and kicks - Ireland and England prep for a rugby war

Ireland are keen to avoid looking towards the World Cup before a big game in Dublin on 2 February.

IRELAND AND ENGLAND are preparing themselves for rugby war right now in Portugal.

A 20-minute drive is all that separates Joe Schmidt’s squad from Eddie Jones’ camp, and the jokes about spying were inevitable when both head coaches flew into London for yesterday’s Six Nations launch, 10 days before their teams meet in Dublin.

2019 Guinness Six Nations Launch - Hurlingham Club Ireland captain Rory Best with England skipper Owen Farrell. Source: PA Wire/PA Images

The captains, Rory Best and Owen Farrell, were in town too and after Ireland’s skipper lost two games of Connect 4 to the Englishman in a promotional video, he jokingly insisted that “I’ll let him win that battle.”

“We’ll go after the war,” said Schmidt with a laugh as he took a seat alongside Best to look towards what will be a thrilling encounter at the Aviva Stadium on 2 February.

The visit to the Quinta do Lago resort and its world-class facilities makes sense for Ireland, particularly after the success of last year’s trip to Spain, with Schmidt and his players working from Monday to Friday of this week to ready themselves for what is likely to be a much-improved and highly-physical England team.

“I think with Billy Vunipola back, Mako Vunipola as a carrier for them, they’ve got a number of guys – even if they didn’t pick Billy and they pick Nathan Hughes, they’re very powerful men,” said Schmidt on a day when both coaches mentioned the “brutality” they expect.

“And then you can run guys in through the midfield like Ben Te’o or Manu Tuilagi, depending on what way Eddie wants to shape his backline, whether he puts George [Ford] and Owen [Farrell] together or whether he’s got Owen and Ben and [Henry] Slade together, who I think is a very talented player, or even if Jonathan Joseph comes back into that slot, I just think there are many different ways they can play, we just have to be ready for it.

“What he has signalled is that there is one particular way that, at times, will be delivered and he’s just probably signalled that we need to be ready for that.”

Considering that physical challenge, Schmidt says Ireland have tried a number of different combinations in their own team in training, with the “big, strong man” Chris Farrell mentioned among the possibilities to deal with England’s threat.

“As long as no-one is spying then people won’t realise we’re trying a few different combinations and hopefully we’ll pick the right one that’s a good fit to combat what England bring,” said Schmidt with a wry smile.

2019 Guinness Six Nations Launch - Hurlingham Club Jones didn't throw too many verbal grenades yesterday. Source: PA Wire/PA Images

As for England, Jones is expecting a ferocious aerial contest, as well as a demanding breakdown assault from Ireland.

Jones, who was rather surprisingly short of the kind of verbal ‘grenades’ he warned Schmidt were coming, didn’t repeat his “kick and clap” jibe of 2017 but stressed that Ireland play differently in the Six Nations to the November Tests.

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“I think it’ll be a high kicking game,” said Jones. “Are they going to clap? It depends if we kick well or Ireland kick well. They’ve changed their game for the autumn, but traditionally the Six Nation is a different tournament.

“We certainly prepare differently for the Six Nations than we would for June or autumn because it’s a different sort of rugby.

“We’ll be prepared, I’m sure Ireland are not over there in Portugal sunbathing. They’ll be preparing for a tough old contest.”

2019 means the World Cup too, of course, and it will colour so much of what is to come in the Six Nations over the next few months.

The potential for all six head coaches to experiment a little further before coming to the global tournament later this year will be tempting, but Schmidt insisted that taking the eye off this England game could be catastrophic.

“I think the word experimentation is an incredibly broad term,” he said. “We are experimenting with maybe a different phase play or a different set play or a different line-out call or a different guy who has been picked at 10 or 13 who hasn’t been in with us before who has comes to training camps but who hasn’t been in with us before.

Ireland v England - RBS 6 Nations - Aviva Stadium England will feel they have a score to settle. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

“Some of the experimentation is forced when you pick up injuries. So you are always experimenting and I think people probably underestimate how much work goes into those small subtle changes that you make.

“Certainly, we are always looking at combinations, not just individuals, so sometimes with selection, there are a few surprises that are part of maybe a bigger picture, a long-term plan, but you get pretty short-term focused.

“You play England in 10 days, you don’t think too much much about a World Cup because I think the danger is you can damage a World Cup, your confidence, your expectation, your momentum, just because you look too far ahead and don’t give due respect to what is one of the biggest teams in world rugby.

“You are just opening yourself up for an opportunity for them to take advantage of you.”

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Murray Kinsella

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