England ready for Irish ambush
March 16, 2011
James Haskell powers forward during a tough win for England © Getty Images
England are one win away from a first Grand Slam since 2003 and last weekend's hard-fought win over Scotland was just what the doctor ordered as they prepare for what will be a huge battle against Ireland in Dublin.
Although it is what the fans would have wanted, the last thing England needed heading into an ambush at Lansdowne Road was a nice easy game where they scored 40 points and everything went their own way. They had a stern test, particularly at the breakdown, and it didn't go according to plan.
The breakdown is an area where Ireland will be strong. Supplementing the combative back-row of Sean O'Brien, David Wallace and Jamie Heaslip are the likes of Brian O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy in midfield, who do plenty of work over the ball.
Against Scotland, England were guilty of not committing enough players to the ruck, but they won't make that mistake again. Unfortunately, it's not as simple as 'just put more players in the ruck'.
If you do that you'll find that you're short at the next breakdown. The message John Wells will be getting across in training this week is that the first man there has to do his job. He has to remove the initial threat. As soon as that happens they have to make a decision as to who is needed. They can't leave Ben Youngs with pressure coming on.
England also need to assess their options correctly this weekend. They didn't play with quite as much balance as in previous weeks and seemed in a hurry to get the ball wide, perhaps because they knew that Scotland's main threat was at the breakdown.
There were times when the forwards managed to get a rumble on, particularly from lineouts and kick-offs, but England didn't use them in open play enough, running off Youngs and picking and going. That could have sucked in a few of the Scottish defenders that were causing the issues at the breakdown.
Ireland will be a very tough prospect and they will want to put in a big showing after the controversy in their loss to Wales last weekend. In short, the mix up over the quick lineout and Welsh try saw both officials get it totally wrong. It wasn't just the fact that the referee's assistant, Peter Allan, made an error.
He should never have said that it was the right ball without knowing, but if you watch the replay his back is to the ball as he runs down to mark the lineout. The referee, Jonathan Kaplan, shouldn't have asked him.
It certainly showed an area that the IRB should address and you should be able to go to the TMO to check things like that in the instance of a try. It doesn't matter how far out it is, it can have a major bearing on the outcome of a game and it takes a second to go to the TMO and clear up a bit of controversy.
Finally, we get to the result of the weekend, Italy's win over France in Rome. France were poor, and should have won, but another big scalp for Italy has been on the cards for a long time. The frustrating thing for Nick Mallett is that If Italy still had Diego Dominguez at 10, they would have won a load of games in this Six Nations. He could hit a drop-goal from anywhere and was a high percentage goal-kicker, that's what they're lacking at the moment and they've struggled due to the inaccuracy of Mirco Bergamasco.
Aside from that, the scenes at the final whistle were wonderful and you saw exactly what it meant to everyone. I sent a text to Martin Castrogiovanni after the game, I know how much it meant to him and Rome would have been an awesome place to be that night.
A lot of the press attention after the game centred on France coach Marc Lievremont however, and his claims that his players exhibited 'cowardice'. There's a dead man walking. In the first place, he was a bizarre choice of coach, he came from nowhere. Some of his selection decisions are off the wall and you can tell that it's not a happy camp.
It's a bit like England with Andy Robinson pre-World Cup 2007. Do you change the coach this close to a World Cup and not allow the new man any time to put together a plan? Or do you keep him in there and go to the World Cup, a bit like the French football team, and implode once you're at the tournament?
It's a difficult conundrum for the French but you'd never hear Martin Johnson saying that about his players. In every England squad that I played with, if you publicly came out and slagged off your players, or if as a player you did the same about the organisation, the other guys wouldn't want you to be part of it. It's as simple as that.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Ben Kay is a co-commentator for ESPN
The latest Week in Pictures takes in all the action from the weekend when rugby united behind Samoa
The Wallabies showed flair in Dublin, but they still have a way to go if they are to do more than make up the numbers at the World Cup, writes Greg Growden
England broke their losing streak, but this was not them clawing their way back among the best, writes Tom Hamilton
Wales' lessons to learn in defeat by New Zealand are almost exactly the same as those from previous near-misses, writes Huw Richards