March 17, 2018
There are cold-fingered days when rugby is slightly less about running or tackling and more about heart and soul. Twickenham is about to witness one, with Ireland chasing only the third grand slam in their history and a cornered England side desperately seeking redemption. The St Patrick’s Day expectation levels are starting to make the Cheltenham Festival resemble a village fete.
The outcome, in theory, rests on Ireland’s capacity to get up the hill, driven on by their hard-nosed forwards and their classy pilots at No 9 and No 10. Everyone knows what a polished team they are becoming; Saturday is the day to show they can also handle the dual pressures of favouritism and intense national fervour. That ambition will inevitably be shaped by the strength of England’s desire to avoid a possible fifth-place finish in this year’s table. Either way, it is likely to be emotional.
A defining, if chilly, afternoon certainly looms for the coaches, Joe Schmidt and Eddie Jones, neither of them strangers to the winner’s enclosure. The former has guided Ireland to three championship titles in five years but it is the mythical slam, hitherto claimed only in 1948 and 2009, that will seal his legacy. Jones, having seen England’s momentum stalled by two grisly away defeats, needs his players to start doing his talking for him again.
If he had stuck an “r” in his supposedly light-hearted reference to the “scummy” Irish he would have been fine; Schmidt’s side love a set piece and the element of control that comes with it. As it is, Jones has risked tweaking the tail of the sabre-toothed Celtic tiger. In 2009, when Warren Gatland suggested every team in the Six Nations was particularly keen to beat Ireland, his words unquestionably motivated the then-Irish coach Declan Kidney and some of his players. “Deccie was always very reserved about showing his emotions but on this day he really let go,” recalled Rory Best, the seasoned Ireland captain, in Tom English’s splendid book No Borders.
“The players fed off that. I was surprised at Gatland because when you start throwing stuff like that out there it generally comes back to bite you. It gives fuel to the other team. It’s the type of game where bitterness is often a useful tool.”
On that basis Jones could have done worse than quote another former Ireland coach Eddie O’Sullivan’s verdict on England this week – “their back row is a mess, their midfield is worse, their defence is ropey and their confidence has been rattled” – in his eve-of-battle address. Edinburgh and Paris have undoubtedly exposed some concerns in key areas but despite everything, there remains a very decent England side in there somewhere.
A glance at this season’s results also reveals a narrower gap between the sides than may be idly assumed. Ireland, like England, saw their game in Paris determined only in the final moments. England, like Ireland, thrashed Italy in Rome and established enough of a lead to see off the resourceful Welsh. Only when Scotland are involved do the stats diverge – although, even then, the Scots tossed away numerous chances to transform the contest.
The challenge for the fit-again Dylan Hartley and his reshaped XV, then, is to jettison all the recent baggage and remember that, under Jones, no side have yet beaten them at Twickenham. Their half-backs have helped steer their club to consecutive European titles, the inclusion of Ben Te’o at No 12 and Kyle Sinckler in the front row should bolster their ball-carrying and George Kruis’s lineout expertise could be useful. That said, the most important Saracens player of all – Billy Vunipola – is still absent and it may have been better to utilise Exeter’s influential Don Armand from the start.
It would also help if England can summon up the unbridled ferocity they inevitably encounter from other sides more than happy to use historical injustice as an extra spur on these occasions. James Haskell, who has played all around the globe, has long since been accustomed to the phenomenon. “That’s what happens when you used to run the world, isn’t it?,” he said “It’s down to empire building. It’s an easy motivation factor for other sides because of the long, entrenched history. It’s very difficult for us to say that. If you know your history we are partly to blame.”
From Haskell’s perspective – “I don’t hate anyone” – it is more about pressing the buttons that matter to him personally. He also argues home advantage, to some extent, is a figment of the imagination. “I don’t want to burst any bubbles but because we travel all the time it doesn’t really matter where we are playing or what the records are. It comes down to trying to play your game and beating the opposition. What it means to them is kind of irrelevant.”
Not everyone will concur but Twickenham is not the diehard rugby citadel of folklore. The last time Haskell was there as a spectator the bloke in the next seat mistook him for Tom Croft, the price for having spent much of his career wearing a headguard.
Interestingly, too, the Irish players are no longer the distant strangers they might have been before last summer’s Lions tour when Haskell became good mates with, among others, Best and Sean O’Brien. “The best thing about the Lions tour for me was meeting people and seeing them outside of the rugby arena,” the Wasps flanker added.
“There are a lot of people who cross that whitewash and turn into absolute nightmares. Then when you see them off the field they are like the loveliest bloke you have ever met. Johnny Sexton was a top guy, Conor Murray the same. Tadhg Furlong was a great hugger. I shared a room with him and was obviously looking a bit tired so he asked me if I wanted a hug. I looked at him and said: ‘Come on then.’ Then I put my clothes back on! That’s bonding on tour.”
The hugging and kissing on this occasion will be reserved for the potentially epic post-match party should Ireland clinch their treasured slam.
England will be bristlingly competitive but unless they drastically reduce their penalty count, a narrow Ireland success is the likelier outcome. Jones’s platoon would love a final day win but Schmidt’s glory hunters crave victory even more.