by Brent Pope
Ireland are starting with the same fifteen as the first two games but there must have been a temptation for Declan Kidney to try Gordon D’Arcy at inside centre and while it may be good for the team that Kidney has shown loyalty to Paddy Wallace I still think we may see D’Arcy brought back in against Scotland or Wales. D'Arcy has made a big impact when he has come on, though maybe Wallace deserves his chance.
The strange one is the omission of Malcolm O’Kelly, with Mick O’Driscoll now on the subs bench. It is difficult to understand because O’Kelly has gone from being selected in the match-day 22s to a situation where he is now out of the extended squad. Personally, I can’t see how he hasn’t done anything wrong to justify being dropped and while you could understand if it was a ‘horses for courses’ selection, the way it has happened is unusual.
Mick O’Driscoll is struggling for game-time in the Munster set-up and you could even argue that someone like Alan Quinlan, who actually had a storming match at second row against Edinburgh on Saturday, might offer more and could have come in ahead of him.
Bob Casey is another player they might have looked at – and if you have a 20 stone guy coming off the bench it can make for a big impact. Casey has a big reputation in England and that might also have given Ireland a bit of a psychological edge.
England - have stumbled on a better side
On the English side, it looks to me as though Martin Johnson has stumbled upon a side that isn’t too bad. They played well and got two tries against Wales and have little bit of belief and morale back in the side.
They one change from the last games, Toby Flood in for Andy Goode. Flood was not really in the shake-up at the start of this Championship but he came on last week against Wales, made a bit of a difference and now he is the starter. I am a little bit surprised they didn’t put Danny Cipriani on the bench. I know he is still young and has had his ups and downs, but he’s the type of player that if you are going to go for a win away from home adds something to the mix and there is also his performance last year. England need to have a go and Cipriani might have added to that.
In the pack, they could have looked at starting the New Zealand born hooker Dylan Hartley, who is robust and aggressive and might have given a more abrasive edge to their tight five.
Looking down their team, the danger man is probably Riki Flutey at inside-centre, who has got power, is a good stepper and can create in midfield.
Ireland - focus on Wallace and O'Gara
On the Irish side, there is a lot of talk about the perceived defensive weakness at 10 and 12. It was interesting to see Les Kiss, the Ireland defence coach, saying he wasn’t too worried about that area given that there has been such a focus on it and he may be right because modern defensive systems actually make it quite hard to target that area.
You have to come back against the grain and you can very easily find yourself running in to loose forwards. Ireland also have a very good sweeper in Tomás O’Leary, who can stop a guy on a dime in the tackle as we saw for Munster in the Heineken Cup. In any case, England don’t really have the type of big power runners – a Jonah Lomu - that can do that job all that well. It’s one of those things that has been said plenty of times over the years about Ronan O’Gara, but it rarely comes to pass in a decisive way.
The other thing with England is that they have a propensity to use their forwards in the backline a lot. They stand them in threes and fours in the middle of the field and allow them to take up the ball – the by now old fashioned idea of using ‘pods’ to punch holes. Nobody else is really doing any more and it hasn’t really worked for England either in recent years, but it has become part of their rugby culture in the Premiership. In terms of countering it, Ireland could look to get numbers to rucks and take England up that way because it can leave you a little short at the breakdown.
Other areas to possibly target would be Delon Armitage’s positional play and there is an interesting individual battle between Brian O’Driscoll and Mike Tindall. Tindall is a good operator on his day but his speed is pretty limited and he may have problems handling O’Driscoll’s footwork.
People have talked a lot about Ronan O’Gara’s form but I don’t think his form has been particularly bad. Teams defend differently and maybe you could say O’Gara didn’t get a huge amount of space against Italy but if teams concentrate too much on trying to mimic that, you run the risk of leaving space somewhere else.
O'Gara - can use options to beat defences
For example, if O’Gara sits a bit deeper, takes the back row out of it and then passes it, England would be defenders down. It would be a very brave coach who would look try to take on a player of O’Gara’s class in that way because you are leaving gaps elsewhere. If he was a weak passer who could only kick, like Andy Goode, there might be an argument for really going after him but O’Gara can pass and kick so you have to guard against both.
I also don’t think Martin Johnson will really have thought to much about O’Gara’s perceived form – he knows how good O’Gara is.
Overall, I think it will be fairly tight. The scrums have been messy for the whole tournament – there was a stat from last week that there had been 54 scrums with 23 collapsed – so it will be hard for either side to dominate that and lineouts and possession could also end up being pretty evenly matched.
I expect England to try to play a bit more than Italy did and as they are underdogs they may be actually able to express themselves better. In the end, I think Ireland may have too much class in the backs for them but it could be closer than people expect and it may come down to a couple of kicks from O’Gara.
FRANCE v WALES
This is a vital game for Ireland because it may take a bit of gloss off the Welsh and their tournament if they end up losing this. If we got to the last weekend with Wales having to win by ‘X’ amount of points, it might give Ireland an advantage. However, if Wales do beat France it will give them a major psychological boost.
Baby has moved to out-half which dictates what France can do as he is not a top class kicker.
WALES - TOO MUCH RESPECT FROM OTHER TEAMS?
This is a pet peeve of mine. Wales aren’t world beaters and the sooner everyone gets that out of their heads, the better. They play a nice brand of rugby and have buckets of self belief but man for man they are no better than Ireland or France and when it comes to the Lions, we may well see as many Irish players as Welsh involved.
They are a small bit All Black-like in that rugby is the national sport and they have a winning mentality that means they can travel to France with a positive attitude.
But if France play close to the way they can do, they could easily end up winning that match.
WALES AND THE RULES?
The taking out of players off the ball was an issue, particularly in the Scottish match. Are they playing close to the rules? Yes, but as a rugby player that’s where you want to be. You’re not offside until you’re penalised and that is something Ireland got away with against France.
It comes down to referees and the rule book – all teams are creeping at rucks.
England have been ridiculous because you can’t win these matches with 14 men and you have to ask about the coaching, because if players are being let do certain things in training it will happen in matches.
ITALY v SCOTLAND:
Italy haven’t been all that bad and they have had a certain amount of bad luck in their matches so far. You could take 15 points off Ireland’s tally and give Italy a few more and it might be a fairer indication of the match. England also had a lot of luck against Italy and they certainly have the pack to give Scotland a game. They will target this to avoid the wooden spoon.
With Scotland, you usually get a brave performance but they tend to run out of steam. They may shade it on home advantage but it will be close and I do think Scotland are headed for a bit of a slump because aside from the Evans brothers they don’t have much coming through.
IRISH PLAYERS COMING THROUGH
Ireland have excellent young players in the senior squad and they have also done very well at underage.
One guy coming through that is particularly interesting is Seán O’Brien, who has just turned 22. I’ve mentioned this before but what I think needs to be done is for someone to take a look at his physique and maybe have a think about his best position. Could he be a ball carrying hooker?
Would it hide him away? I don’t think so. In New Zealand the hooker is the fourth back-row – you even look at Keith Wood, who was as much of a crasher and basher as any back row. I don’t know what the thinking is in Ireland, but I can say for a fact that in New Zealand the option of making him a hooker would be under serious consideration.
For the live games we are at Croke Park, but we watch the monitor because it’s too hard to pick the clips we want to talk about from the live view. We watch the other games on monitors and in many cases, it is actually easier to pick up on things on TV.