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Dublin: 8 °C Thursday 19 September, 2019
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Schmidt's Ireland need to show encouraging signs in Twickenham

After a disappointing Six Nations, this feels like a chance to gain some momentum.

IT’S HARD TO shake off the concerns that built during the Six Nations, most Ireland fans will tell you.

It must be difficult for Joe Schmidt and his players to ignore those doubts too.

There have even been references to 2007 in the last couple of weeks – many of those mentions accompanied by the kind of frantic laugh a driver might deliver as he assures his passengers that he’s definitely not lost. 

a-view-of-training Ireland at Twickenham yesterday. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

It is absolutely too early to be drawing genuine comparisons with that ill-fated campaign but it does also feel that Ireland’s clash with England at Twickenham this afternoon [KO 3pm, Sky Sports Action] has more riding on it than your regular World Cup warm-up fixture.

Most Ireland supporters won’t need reminding, but it was Eddie Jones’ side who shook Joe Schmidt’s team out of the stunning momentum they had built in a remarkable 2018 that included a Grand Slam, series success in Australia and a win over the All Blacks.

Schmidt admitted his players were “a bit broken” by that defeat in Dublin, where they were physically outmuscled and outsmarted by Jones’ intelligent game plan. A dark opening day seemed to feed into the rest of the Six Nations and Ireland saved worst for last when they were very poor away to Wales as Warren Gatland’s men claimed the Grand Slam.

While Ireland overcame Italy two weekends ago in their first warm-up game, the return of the majority of their front-line stars today against the opponent that seemingly unsettled them back in February means this encounter is likely to be tasty.

Getting right for the World Cup is the main key this summer but a win at Twickenham – where the heat could reach 30°C – would be very welcome for Schmidt’s men. 

“There’s no point in hiding from the fact that they came to Dublin and right from the first exchanges they sort of dominated us in the areas where we take a lot of pride in how good we are,” says Ireland captain Rory Best. “We got bullied a little bit.

“That’s probably the big area for us to be better. Obviously, the circumstances will be slightly different; a World Cup warm-up versus the first game of the Six Nations.

“For us, it’s about making sure those opening exchanges don’t get away from us as they did in two of the Six Nations games. When they got away from us, the result ended up getting away from us as well.”

ross-byrne Ross Byrne is at 10 for Ireland. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

The return of Best in Ireland’s front row in between Cian Healy and Tadhg Furlong lends them real strength in that area, while Iain Henderson is also back alongside Jean Kleyn on the Munster man’s second cap, as his World Cup prospects continue to look good.

The back row of Peter O’Mahony, CJ Stander and Josh van der Flier is also likely Schmidt’s first-choice preference, while a fit-looking Conor Murray is back at scrum-half. A midfield combination of Bundee Aki and Garry Ringrose offers guile and punch, while the back three of Jacob Stockdale, Rob Kearney and Jordan Larmour is strong too.

The real unknown element for Ireland is out-half Ross Byrne, with the Leinster man set for his first Test start on the occasion of his third cap, the other two having come against Italy and the US. This will be an altogether different challenge.

In reserve, Connacht out-half Jack Carty is also likely to see plenty of game time, with Schmidt keen to test out both relatively inexperienced playmakers after the worrying injury to Joey Carbery.

“You see Ross stepping in for Leinster and he’s fairly unflappable,” says Best. “Unfortunately, from an Ulster point of view, we saw that in the Champions Cup quarter-final. That’s the way he trains.

“He’s not just unflappable, he’s got answers for you, he sees things. Whenever we come into the huddle, if it didn’t work, he’s talking about why it didn’t work. It’s not just a case of, ‘We need to do it better.’ It’s, ‘We need to do it better by doing this’ which is a good trait and you see the way Jack runs Connacht.”

Best says Johnny Sexton is “flying” in training and there are no fears about his ability to return immediately to the pitch of Test rugby when Schmidt is ready to call on him against Wales in the next fortnight.

“But look the two boys are the two fit boys at the minute and they’re getting their opportunity,” continues Best. “It’s a responsibility of the people around Ross to make sure that he gets as easy a ride as possible, that he gets to flourish and is able to express himself.”

joe-schmidt-and-jean-kleyn Joe Schmidt with Jean Kleyn, who starts in the second row again. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

England will pose plenty of challenges, with a physical edge to the impressive team Jones has named. The Vunipola brothers will be a threat as ever – Billy from the start and Mako off the bench – while the likes of Sam Underhill, Tom Curry, Maro Itoje, and Manu Tuilagi would take pleasure from giving Ireland a thumping.

The George Ford-Owen Farrell playmaking axis at 10 and 12 makes a return, which should also allow England to feed their dangerous back three of Elliot Daly, Jonny May and the hulking Joe Cokanasiga, while the ultra-classy Jamie George is back at hooker.

Clearly, Ireland will have their hands full but they have also been focusing heavily on themselves this week and throughout pre-season.

We await with interest to see what kicking tactics they employ after opting not to kick off their scrum-halves a single time against Italy, while it will also be intriguing to see if their hard work on phase play in training this summer bears any fruit.

“We want to be better organised and quicker to set, and also to be able to read things,” says Best. “The forwards, there is a lot of pressure being put on not waiting for a back to hold their hand to put them in position. You’ve got to see it early and be there early.

“Obviously, there is a lot of focus over the years that goes into our first three phases [off set-piece] and a lot of people make a lot of that, but we also work hard on our phase play and transition to make sure we can give people options.

“If you can give people like Garry Ringrose, Jordan Larmour, and Jacob Stockdale one-on-one opportunities, they are as good as anybody in the world. But if you let them be teamed up, two-on-one, it makes it very difficult, no matter how good they are.”

Ireland found that out the hard away against England last time these sides clashed, adding to the sense that Schmidt’s men need to show they have learned and improved as the World Cup looms.

England:

15. Elliot Daly 
14. Joe Cokanasiga
13. Manu Tuilagi 
12. Owen Farrell (captain)
11. Jonny May
10. George Ford
9. Ben Youngs 

1. Joe Marler
2. Jamie George 
3. Kyle Sinckler 
4. Maro Itoje 
5. George Kruis 
6. Tom Curry 
7. Sam Underhill
8. Billy Vunipola

Replacements:

16. Luke Cowan-Dickie
17. Mako Vunipola
18. Dan Cole
19. Courtney Lawes
20. Mark Wilson
21. Willi Heinz 
22. Piers Francis 
23. Jonathan Joseph 

Ireland:

15. Rob Kearney
14. Jordan Larmour
13. Garry Ringrose
12. Bundee Aki
11. Jacob Stockdale
10. Ross Byrne
9. Conor Murray

1. Cian Healy
2. Rory Best (captain)
3. Tadhg Furlong
4. Iain Henderson
5. Jean Kleyn
6. Peter O’Mahony
7. Josh van der Flier
8. CJ Stander

Replacements:

16. Sean Cronin
17. Jack McGrath
18. Andrew Porter
19. Devin Toner
20. Tadhg Beirne
21. Luke McGrath
22. Jack Carty
23. Andrew Conway

Referee: Nigel Owens.

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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