Rugby: We shouldn't get carried away by Ireland's early wins with England looming

Rugby: We shouldn't get carried away by Ireland's early wins with England looming
Ireland players, from left, Jean Kleyn, Iain Henderson, and CJ Stander after disappointment against England last year. Picture: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

IF WE can be arrogant enough to rule out the challenge of Italy, which is a safe assumption considering their last Six Nation’s victory came against Scotland in 2015, then Ireland are half way to a Grand Slam.

The thing is though, it is hard to know whether this is more by accident than design.

A quick glance at the Six Nation’s table, after two rounds of the competition, will tell you that Ireland and France are vying for top spot, with two wins apiece. That might suggest a potential winner takes all clash at the Stade de France between the two sides on the final weekend of the tournament on the 15th of March, but that might not necessarily be the case either.

A further examination of the opening two rounds also tells us that the two teams that have happened to play at home on both weekends are, yes you’ve guessed it, Ireland and France.

Surely it is no great surprise then that the two teams with home advantage in the early stages have capitalised upon this and seized the momentum that the fixture planners kindly presented them with.

Ireland have only really done what has been expected of them to date, i.e., to be a difficult nut to crack at the Aviva Stadium. You could even argue that had Stuart Hogg and Hadleigh Parkes grounded their respective efforts in rounds 1 and 2 that Ireland may not be going into this weekend with a 100% record at all.

Still, momentum is everything in the Six Nation’s. If luck comes your way you must grab it, ride the wave of momentum that piece of good luck has given you, and capitalise.

Wales have done this down the years to great effect. Ireland did it two years ago. Ireland could do it as well, in Andy Farrell’s first campaign at the helm.

England are certainly suffering from a bit of a World Cup hangover at the minute. They were well beaten by France on opening weekend and were extremely lucky to come out the right side of an error strewn arm wrestle at Murrayfield against Scotland the last day.

Ultimately though we can summarise that their unimpressive start to the campaign can be put down to two things; one, injuries, and two, poor selection decisions by coach Eddie Jones.

With regards injuries the bottom line is that when England have to play without the Vunipola brothers and Manu Tuilagi they become very average. With that trio in the team they are pretty much guaranteed to win the collision contest in every game.

Without them, this is not as clear cut, and their lack of quality in the playmaking department is suddenly found out. The problem for England, though, is that they are extremely injury prone, and therefore building a team around them has left them vulnerable.

Eddie Jones decided to move Tom Curry to No. 8 in Billy Vunipola’s absence, a move that just has not worked. Curry is a fetcher, one of the best in the world in winning turnovers, but he really should have gone for as close to a like for like replacement as he could find at No. 8, with perhaps the Exeter Chiefs Sam Simmonds fitting the bill in this regards.

Curry could then be left do what he does best in his flanker role.

England also have an issue at half back. They still have not decided whether Owen Farrell is an outhalf or a centre, and at present they would appear to have no truly world class scrum half amongst their ranks. You can have as much grunt up front as you like, and have the wizardry of Johnny May on the wing, but if have a deficit in the half back department at this level then you are going to struggle.

You would hope that a resurgent Conor Murray and Jonathan Sexton could swing things Ireland’s way in the key battle of the half backs.

Another area where Ireland will have to win, or at least achieve parity, is in the battle of the breakdown. Sam Underhill and Tom Curry were lethal at the World Cup in Japan when the ball hit the deck. Josh van der Flier, CJ Stander and friends will have their work cut out to stop them from dominating these exchanges, as quite simply, this is the type of game where the side with the best discipline wins out.

To put it another way, it could well be the case that the team that wins the most penalties will come out on top. Those two things are not always the same thing. CJ Stander will certainly be hoping to have a more lenient referee this time around, as against Wales the French referee Romaine Poite was not a fan of the Munster man’s jackaling technique on the deck.

As ever expect England to go after Ireland at set piece time. Cian Healy has been creaking a bit at loose head, and if selected Kyle Sinckler will go after him. Maro Itoje will also be targeting the Irish lineout, in what could be a fascinating battle between a potential Lions lock pairing in Itoje and James Ryan.

With France travelling to Cardiff this weekend, and with Ireland visiting London, we will have a much clearer picture of who the alpha dogs of European rugby are after this weekend.

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