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Ireland need to beat England to save their season

Victory over Scotland yesterday was good but getting one over England will give the Ireland coach the signature win he needs.

Image: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Updated Mar 15th 2021, 12:02 PM

WE HAVE BEEN down this road before. Warren Gatland, 2001. Declan Kidney, 2011. Joe Schmidt, 2017. Each time the Ireland coach’s season was on the line, each time England provided the opposition on the final day of the championship.

The one difference is that this weekend – unlike those previous years – England aren’t coming to Dublin in search of a grand slam. Like Ireland, they also have two defeats on the ledger, their chance of winning a title long gone. Still, the last thing Andy Farrell wants to be is the undertaker who got killed by the corpse.

More than anyone – the 46 players who’ll stand for the anthems, the dozen or so coaching staff who’ll take their spots in the stand – Farrell desperately needs this victory, a signature win to finally separate him from Joe Schmidt.

Until now, the Ireland head coach has had the misfortune to be trapped in the shadow of his predecessor, the man who collected three Six Nations titles and a couple of All Black scalps, the orchestrator of the best rugby year an Irish team has ever had.

That, remember, was just three years ago. It feels like three decades.

Ireland’s graph has been going steadily downwards since – firstly in Schmidt’s final year, but also under Farrell. On the Englishman’s watch, they’ve managed to beat Scotland three times, Wales twice, Italy twice, Georgia once – but whenever they have faced Europe’s best two sides their defence has been easily breached.

huw-jones-scores-a-try Huw Jones breaches the Ireland defence. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

The same thing happened again yesterday. Three times Scotland crossed the Irish line and on two of those occasions, James Lowe was partly culpable, his form disappointingly falling shy of the promise he showed on his debut back in November.

With Jacob Stockdale fit again, and Jordan Larmour relishing the idea of escaping the bench, change is advisable. In sport – as Roy Keane so tactfully put it – there is a thin line between loyalty and stupidity.

To be fair to Farrell, a lot of the calls he has made have worked out. Plenty of people, as an example, grumbled about Rob Herring’s selection over Ronan Kelleher but the fact remains that Ireland’s lineout has returned an 88 per cent success rate in this tournament – Herring a bigger contributor than Kelleher to those stats.

The other side of the spreadsheet looks even better. Eight times Scotland threw into their line yesterday. Only twice did they come away with the ball. So never mind all those team selections, the smartest pick Farrell has made in 18 months was convincing Paul O’Connell to become his forwards coach.

“The (turnovers) in the lineout were down to Paulie (O’Connell), Cheese (James Ryan) and Hendy (Iain Henderson),” said man of the match, Tadhg Beirne yesterday. “We put a good plan together and got our reward.”

They certainly did. Still, it’s one thing out-thinking and out-jumping Jonny Gray and Scott Cummings, another to do a number on Maro Itoje and Charlie Ewels. “I’ve never beaten England at senior level,” said Beirne. He’s not alone. Anyone who made their Ireland debut after March 2018 has only got a taste of defeat out of this derby.

nick-haining-competes-in-the-air-with-jack-conan Ireland dominated the lineout yesterday. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

The obvious thing to say is they better get used to that, because the same thing will happen again next Saturday, England/France being on a way higher level than Ireland/Scotland. But sport has a habit of surprising you. No two weekends are ever the same. Scotland beat England, remember. In the last World Cup, the New Zealand who destroyed Ireland didn’t look the same side losing to England a week later. England, too, were a pale imitation of themselves when they faced South Africa in the final. In such a physically demanding sport, teams can go to the well only so often.

Another factor in Ireland’s favour is their willingness to acknowledge that things aren’t perfect. Check out these words from Beirne and bear in mind they were delivered within an hour of Ireland’s scrappy but dramatic 27-24 win. Rather than play the ‘result is all that matters’ card, instead he told the truth.

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“There are elements where we need to improve,” he said. “I don’t think we were at our best in terms of the breakdown in attack. Scotland managed to get some turnovers and that is definitely something we will focus on. We conceded two tries through our own mistakes, not being calm enough on turnover ball and stuff. That’s another thing that we will definitely look at.”

Why stop there? They missed 22 tackles, Scotland only six. Ireland made two line breaks, Scotland five. In defence and attack, Ireland have serious issues and it is up to Farrell and his coaching gang to resolve them.

andy-farrell Ireland coach, Andy Farrell. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Few expect them to do it in time for England’s visit. In terms of physicality and technical ability, England are without doubt the more richly endowed team of the two. And with Jonny May and Anthony Watson running dangerously in the wide areas, Itoje showing glimpses of his old form and the superb George Ford reminding us of his variety of skills, it doesn’t take much to make a case for an England win.

But we thought the same thing in 2001, 2011 and 2017. And we all know what happened then. For Farrell to become the latest escapologist who saves his season on the back of a win over England, he has to get his team to deliver an 80-minute performance, something that has only happened twice (each time against Wales at the Aviva) on his watch.

Being inconsistent from game to game is bad enough but with this Ireland team you don’t know what you are going to get from half to half. That’s the kind of psychological issue you want solved before Itoje and co emerge from the Aviva Stadium tunnel.

First published today at 07.00

About the author:

Garry Doyle

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