Irish Rugby, Rugby

England v Ireland – Preview

Eamon Dunphy must be squirming at the news of Stephen Kenny’s video emerging this week. Kenny and/or some of his coaching team seemingly thought that a 1916 inspired motivational video would inspire his fatigued, listless team prior to playing England in a hastily arranged friendly in the midst of a lockdown.

Perhaps the video was the motivation behind the side avoiding a 5-0 defeat?

Dunphy, a sometimes thoughtful yet consistently hypocritical voice – think of a socialist in thrall to the elite – has always claimed to be a critic of Official Ireland and, what he considered, the unmerited dislike for Britain drummed up by plastic nationalists.

In fairness, his view was that many Irish soccer professionals earn a living playing the game in England and for the most part don’t share the same derision for the ‘Brits’ as us uncultured suckers who’ve lived in Ireland all our lives. Incidentally, James McLean might disagree.

Dunphy’s view is, maybe, more complex than that and while he admirably displayed his dismay at the atrocities of Bloody Sunday in 1972, he felt England gave him a living, so he’d generously give them a break for past misgivings. He likes to paint the place as a Shangri-La for the Irish in the 60s which sounds like a load of nonsense but he was there and we weren’t so he wins that one.

Anyway, Dunphy is always quick to point out that ‘football people’, most of whom must come from Dublin understand the Brits and see past their follies. So, when word of Kenny’s inspirational video broke, Eamo’s heart must have dropped.

As a true football man, Kenny has let down Eamonn, which he’ll get past quick enough. More importantly though, he’s had a bit of David Brent moment, attempting to invoke the spirit of 1916 – doesn’t even seem like the right event to draw upon this year – in front of many players who either have English heritage or may be married to an English woman.

Hopefully, Andy Farrell hasn’t made any similar bloopers this week, though if he’s paid heed to Rassie Erasmus, he’ll be careful not to upset anyone in the dressing room.

Erasmus’ comments prior to last year’s World Cup semi-final of Ireland being ‘softies’ have really ruffled some feathers. The historical perception has always been that, no matter the score line, Ireland have always prided themselves on their ability to fight, to never back down even when being dominated on the scoreboard.

Frankly, Erasmus doesn’t have to apologise for his comments but while they were said in the context of a motivational talk prior to his side facing the not-soft Welsh, he must believe it to an extent.

If Farrell wants to provide motivation, a video of Queensland’s miraculous victory over New South Wales in last Wednesday’s State of Origin decider would prove far more effective than any half-cocked jingoism.

The English rugby team are always viewed as bullies when they are on top. Is this simply because they usually field a physically bigger pack who dominates the set piece and the collisions? Perhaps and that is probably the larger context in which a team is deemed to be a bully in rugby.

New Zealand have routinely humiliated every team in world rugby but it’s rare that they are described as bullies. This, despite the fact that they have produced some of the most physically imposing players in rugby history: Lomu, Umaga, Nonu, Savea and, fresh off the production line, Caleb Clarke. And, these are just the backs.

New Zealand have always done it, or at least projected the picture of doing it, with style and panache. England, though, perhaps in keeping with their perceived mentality, have put brute force and physical domination to the forefront and worn it as a badge, particularly in Twickenham

And, with a healthy dose of Pacific Island magic introduced into the mix, particularly Many Tuilagi, England have really been able to impose themselves on Ireland in recent years. This is why Irish supporters are viewing today’s game with no little trepidation. However, like England, we have added some strings to our bow.

After some early indifference, Ireland have gotten really stuck into the residency rule and tomorrow’s team will have five starters who have qualified to play for Ireland under this regulation. Of the two most recent debutants, James Lowe and Jamison Gibson-Park will be under the microscope tomorrow.

Lowe was excellent last week, deservedly capping off his energetic performance with a well-taken, late try. The former Waikato Chief has been touted as the spark that Ireland’s three quarters need and he provided everything that was hoped for last week, carrying through and around the tackle, looking to link with team mates and competing strongly in the air.

Still, it will only be Lowe’s second cap and it seems slightly unusual to expect a winger, despite their remit to roam nowadays, to immediately transform our attack.

Having said that, you wouldn’t always expect a corner forward to immediately change the flow of a hurling match. But we all bore witness to Richie Hogan’s piece of permanently etched magic last Saturday night…..

Though a shameless effort to squeeze Hogan’s extraordinary feat into the article, it shows that Lowe, like Hogan, playing in a more peripheral position can still have a significant bearing on the game.

The case for Jamison Gibson-Park is less clear though and for those who believe the 28 year-old should start for Ireland, a day behind a retreating pack may offer an alternative view.

Perhaps we’re being harsh but while Lowe’s selection has been met with real anticipation, the choice of Gibson-Park suggests a paucity of options at scrum-half. Hopefully we are proven wrong.

Should Ireland perform well tomorrow, then we may look at it as the day that Gibson Park and his half-back partner, Ross Byrne, announced their arrival as genuine opposition to the entrenched incumbents, Conor Murray and Jonathan Sexton.

It’s not as though Murray and Sexton have gotten fat off their success but in the same way their own arrivals heralded improved competition for Tomás O’ Leary and, of course, Ronan O’ Gara so might the ascendancy of Byrne and Gibson-Park drive the former duo to greater heights.

Farrell’s selection has clearly taken into account the forward domination that England have enjoyed during Ireland’s past two visits to Twickenham. The World Cup warm-up was an abomination and, sadly, a portent of the aberrations that were to follow in Japan merely weeks later.

Last year’s Six Nations contest finished 24-12 to England but the score line is not really reflective of the dominance England enjoyed before both benches emptied on 60 minutes. Curiously, for the second Six Nations running Ireland could not defend the kick against England.

The man who stood out then, as he does always, ensconced in the Irish side of the ruck, completing shuddering hit after shuddering hit was Maro Itoje. He is surely the world’s best player, or if not that, then the man you would want most in your team, a disruptor in the truest sense of the word, not like the dickheads in Silicon Valley.

The hope is that James Ryan, captain tomorrow, leading Ireland out on the 100th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, can eventually reach the consistent heights of Itoje. England do not rely solely on the Saracens lock but he is the beating heart of what is an excellent forward unit.

There is a wariness around the scrum, particularly as Pascal Gauzere decided early and often that Leinster were the transgressors in their defeat to Saracens in the Heineken Cup quarter final. Gauzere is in the middle again tomorrow and Eddie Jones has been planting his usual seeds of doubt.

Parity in the scrum would be a victory of sorts for Ireland, particularly in the continued absence of Tadhg Furlong, and control of the contest may then come down to an enthralling between the back rows: C.J. Stander, Caelan Doris and a positively more angry, Peter O’ Mahony versus Sam Underhill, Ben Curry and the near indomitable, Billy Vunipola.

Obviously this is a not a straight up, man to man contest but whichever back row can suppress their opponent’s attacking forays while simultaneously providing consistent go forward ball for their half backs will go a long way towards solving this puzzle.

Ireland are in better shape than people think and will be more competitive than in recent years. England, however, are simply a better side and that is enough.

SUS Prediction: England by 8


  1. Ireland +12 @ evens

2. Handicap Draw (+12) @ 25/1

3. James Lowe 1st Try @ 15/1