- Lancaster, Launchbury, Haskell, Catt, Lawes, Vunipola and Cole preview Ireland in Dublin
- Breakdown battle has had much emphasis in the build-up
As firmly established by England’s tackle area coach, Graham Rowntree, and regular topper of the ruck attendance stats, Tom Wood, this week, domination at the breakdown is the key to winning games of international rugby.
And with England in Dublin searching for a first win in the Irish capital for a decade, the presence of Lion Jamie Heaslip and, Lion in waiting, Sean O’Brien, only serves to sharpen the focus on that area.
The back row pair made 36 tackle between them in the victory over Wales in Cardiff and lock Joe Launchbury, notable in his short international career for relentless work of his own, identified the Leinster duo as a genuine threat.
The 21-year-old, who has five caps, said: “The breakdown in international rugby is always massively important. We talk in the week about breakdowns being the most frequent thing in the game; you get more breakdowns than anything else.
“This week against the Irish it will obviously be very important and part of the game we have to look to be on top of. They have a very strong back row and strong pack in general with lots of ball carriers and tacklers as well but we have to counter that and play our own game.”
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England Attacking Skills Coach Mike Catt, who won 75-caps in every position along the backline except scrum half, admires the talent brimming in Ireland’s backs but says their success is rooted in quality, front foot ball from the forwards.
He said: “The credit has to go to forwards and the back row who are exceptional, they give the back line the ball that they want continually and put Darcy, O’Driscoll and Zebo and all those guys in positions where they can go and exploit their expertise.”
James Haskell makes his first England start since a 28 tackle showing in the Third Test against South Africa in Port Elizabeth and he is adamant that, similarly, the visiting forwards must create the platform for the backs to attack Ireland if they have aspirations of continuing the form of seven tries and 76 points in the last two games.
“Against Ireland you have to get the set-piece right, you have to get the breakdown right and you have to give the ball to the backs to attack,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how potent your backline is, if they’re not getting the ball and not getting it in any space it is going to be very difficult.”
The London Wasp starts at blindside flanker, with Tom Wood switching to No.8 for Ben Morgan, who has an injured ankle. Haskell and Wood are two of five in the starting line-up who played on England’s last visit to Dublin, when the Grand Slam chasing side were humbled 24-8.
That result was founded in an emotionally charged Ireland feeding off an intense atmosphere and establishing an unassailable first-half lead. Speaking from experience another starter from that day, Dan Cole, believes England must silence the Aviva Stadium crowd and therein drain energy from the home team.
The tighthead, who has only missed one of England’s last 36 Tests said: “The Aviva is a good stadium, a loud stadium and they live off that energy. We’ve got to try and take the crowd out of it and, I know it’s on old cliché, but we need to try and make it about the 15 guys on the field.”
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But that’s not saying England will not have adrenaline coursing through their veins come kick off tomorrow. Conceived wisdom is that should England stay in the hunt, there is impact – Manu Tuilagi, Courtney Lawes and Mako Vunipola – and experience – Dylan Hartley, Toby Flood and Danny Care – to either change or close out the game.
England’s bench has 200 Test caps but one of the relatively new men, Saracens loosehead Vunipola, said: “I think it shows that the bench is not there to make up the numbers any more, when we come on we know we have to add to the team.
“The experience of Dylan and Toby helps calm the team down and the young players like myself and Courtney want to go and make a mark.”
Lawes, 23, is more up front, like his shuddering style on the field: “If we’re in touching distance with 20 minutes to go most people think we’ve got the better bench to come on. We’ve certainly got some impact with Manu, Mako and myself, hopefully we can come on and make a big difference.”
So, three interconnected areas to get right for England to achieve a first win in Dublin since Martin Johnson inspired the future world cup winners to a 42-6 win in 2003.
Win the battle at the breakdown to starve Ireland’s stellar backline of quality ball and also launch England’s own runners into space, which will then silence the crowd and prevent the surge in emotional energy which scuppered England hopes in 2011. Which in turn will keep the game tight, when England’s blockbusting bench can emerge to win the game.
Easier said than done against a team littered with Lions but if this is not the Grand Slam decider as billed in some quarters, it has become a Grand Slam eliminator between the only two unbeaten teams in the tournament after Scotland’s win over Italy.