England cannot become regarded as easy prey for Ireland ahead of Six Nations clash
The St Patrick’s weekend festivities should reach a thunderous climax at about 7pm on Saturday when Ireland clinch the Six Nations title and the fourth Grand Slam in their history, after dispatching England.
There is no trace of jeopardy or doubt in the air here. Put green ribbons on the trophy now and line up the celebratory ‘black stuff’. Spoiling the party is beyond today’s visitors to the Aviva Stadium, as Steve Borthwick’s gap fear will be justified again.
England’s head coach knows just how far his side lag behind the sport’s current standard-bearers and after world No 2 France trounced them at Twickenham last weekend, the No 1 nation are ready to pounce on the exposed English jugular. This could be a bloody, brutal occasion.
The bookmakers are expecting such a no-contest finale on Super Saturday that they make Ireland 16-point favourites — a damning indictment of how far England have fallen. It is hard to argue with their assessment.
A culture clash awaits, too. This is all set to be a jarring collision between a finely tuned machine and a spluttering mass of parts held together by masking tape.
Ireland will win the Six Nations if they beat England at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday
Spoiling the party is beyond England, as Steve Borthwick’s gap fear will be justified again.
England’s boss knows just how far his side lag behind the sport’s current standard-bearers
The Irish game is structured to achieve Champions Cup and Test success, while the English game is mired in division and turmoil. Borthwick is battling institutionalised hassle and disruption. No wonder he spoke of Ireland having ‘an incredible pathway’ and a strong Leinster core which ‘must certainly help’.
England are standing on another precipice on Saturday, staring into the void where their Six Nations record lies in ruins. If they lose, as they surely will, it means a third straight year of winning two out of five Championship games. What an affront to English rugby heritage, yet the RFU have grown accustomed and almost resigned to lowered standards and expectations.
What the union hierarchy would have hoped for after ousting Eddie Jones was a bounce effect under a new regime. Instead, the decline continues.
Defeat by Ireland would leave them just a fraction above Jones’s seventh-placed Australia in the world rankings. That doesn’t fit with any long-term strategic plan issued from the corridors of power at Twickenham. Their faint chances of coming into this last weekend of the campaign with a title shot were buried under a Gallic onslaught last weekend, but there is a reputational factor here which should focus minds.
England cannot become regarded as easy prey for their neighbours. They have to at least re-assert themselves today, by playing with wounded-animal fervour. That is a non-negotiable.
The visiting pack should be hurt and hell-bent on making amends for what happened to them at Twickenham seven days ago.
England were hoping for a bounce effect after Eddie Jones’s exit but the decline continues
England suffered their worst ever defeat at Twickenham losing 10-53 to France last weekend
Too many liberties were taken. English forwards are not supposed to bend the knee like that. Having been captain for ‘Le Crunch’, Ellis Genge is the ideal man to set a tone of angry defiance. Borthwick spoke of ‘forthright conversations’ during the last week. Evidently, the players have been told their fortune.
‘They certainly need to understand what it takes to compete against the top teams,’ said the head coach.
Certain members of his starting line-up are running out of lives. Alex Dombrandt needs to show he truly belongs before Zach Mercer becomes eligible for selection this summer and seizes the No 8 shirt. Jack van Poortvliet is another under mounting pressure. On form, he is not justifying his place. On potential, he has so much more to offer. The time has come to show that again.
As yet, a true team hasn’t taken shape. As yet, there’s no real identity or sense of direction. As yet, the management team haven’t sparked an up-turn and more upheaval is imminent, with Richard Cockerill leaving, and Richard Wigglesworth and Aled Walters arriving from Leicester. Others may be added. The coaching staff is changing and further changes to on-field personnel are likely, too.
All the noise around the Red Rose squad should provoke a reaction this evening. But emotion alone will not save them, because the hosts have that in abundance, too. In fact, there are no English trump cards to be found.
Ireland are more creative, cohesive and resilient. They are better at opening up opponents and at shutting them down. They have superior skills and know-how. They can problem-solve on the hoof in a way that is far beyond England’s scope. They are better in the air and with ball in hand. They have more flair, more grit and more groundhogs capable of dictating terms at the breakdown. They are awash with Lions pedigree and supreme confidence.
If the script is followed, this will be an Irish triumph masterminded by discarded England coaches. Andy Farrell has elevated the team he inherited from Joe Schmidt with passion and positivity. His impact is threatening to break the cycle of Irish peaks before World Cups. This could be a staging post on the way to the sport’s ultimate glory. The legend of league is bestriding union. Whatever he says, maybe he can be persuaded to return — one day.
For now, he has embraced his Dublin life and the Lancastrian stands on the brink of a famous feat, aided and abetted by Mike Catt, and by Stuart Lancaster and Graham Rowntree in their respective roles at Leinster and Munster. England’s past is coming back to haunt England’s present.
Jack van Poortvliet is another under mounting pressure. On form, he is not justifying his place.
Manu Tuilagi has been recalled and has never lost to Ireland, but there’s a first time for everything
Borthwick needs some lucky breaks. Manu Tuilagi has been recalled and has never lost to Ireland, but there is a first time for everything. In six appearances against these rivals, the Sale centre has won the lot. It is hard to imagine him extending that sequence today, whatever havoc he can wreak in midfield.
In the aftermath of the mauling by France, Jamie George said: ‘We will be written off.’
He’s quite right, England have been and they are being, with justification. There has been talk of excitement about the challenge, but Borthwick also keeps acknowledging that glaring ‘gap’.
It is huge. Too huge to bridge. Based on a smart system, Ireland have built a formidable machine. Based on a shambolic mess, England have dug themselves a deep hole — and they can’t spoil the St Patrick’s party from down there.