England are celebrating the discovery of a new centre partnership, a first win on Irish soil in 8 years and a big boost in confidence. In stark contrast, Ireland, will be without David Wallace for the world cup, have lost all 4 warm up games and, most worryingly, are not currently playing to their potential. The Irish players and management argue that the world cup has not started yet and that the recent results are somewhat irrelevant. As true as that is, momentum is vital. Winning is a habit. Unfortunately so is losing. England will start the world cup looking to build on their 2 game winning streak. Ireland will be desperate to get back to winning when they kick off their campaign against the United States Eagles on September 11th.
England boast a formidable world cup track record. Out of the six world cup tournaments ever held, the all whites have featured in three finals including 2003 which saw them win the famous Webb Ellis trophy. In Pool B, along with Georgia, Argentina, Scotland and Romania, England are favorites to top their pool and advance to the quarter finals. Yesterday’s performance against Ireland has given the former world champions a number of reasons to feel optimistic as they board the plane to New Zealand.
It is a little early to over hype the centre partnership of Tindall and Tuilagi. Both men played well yesterday and looked like they could potentially form a dangerous partnership, but it was their first game together. On one of Jonny Wilkinson’s quieter days, Tindall became the maestro of the England backline. He pulled Irish defenders this way and that, created space for his teammates, provided a deft chip kick for Armitage’s try and defended gallantly throughout. This will be Mike Tindall’s last world cup. As one of the elder statesmen in the English squad and with plenty of international test experience, Tindall will play a huge role in England’s fortunes at the tournament. He may yet prove to be a perfect mentor for his young centre partner, and that could have devastating effects.
Most of the talk has been about the rising star, Manu Tuilagi. Manu is one of six Tuilagi brothers all to have represented Leicester Tigers but the first to represent England. While at Leicester Tigers I played alongside Henry and Alex Tuilagi. These men are forces of nature. They boast incredible physical attributes including strength, power and speed. So much so that Henry would have to take it “easy” on his teammates at training for fear of causing serious injury. That was three years ago but I remember the word around Leicester’s training ground at Oadby was, “wait until you see their younger brother”. Manu Tuilagi has arrived and will make a big impact at the world cup. Like his brothers, Manu is the real deal.
Somewhat overlooked is the fact that England beat Ireland on Irish soil for the first time in 8 years. This gives the whole English squad a massive psychological boost. The players will take a lot of confidence from the victory and Martin Johnson could not ask for better timing. Last year England looked set for a Grand Slam 6 Nations only to be thwarted by an impressive Irish display. The defeat left them crushed and soul searching. Mike Tindall, in his post match comments made reference to the “hurt” of last year’s defeat against Ireland but also to their collective willingness to put that right. England were a lot more hungry for a victory than Ireland yesterday and that was down to the team’s desire to work very hard for each other. This bodes well for their campaign. England kick off their world cup tournament against Argentina.
In the month of August, Ireland have slipped from fourth to eight place (a record low) in the I.R.B. rankings. In the same month Ireland have suffered four straight defeats. Included is the fact that Ireland have surrendered a proud a home record against the English. These are not good world cup preparations and Ireland’s fortunes need to drastically change soon.
Ireland coach, Declan Kidney will draw on whatever positives he can from the yesterday’s defeat. The Irish set pieces performed well for the most part. Flannery’s lineout throwing was accurate and repeatedly reached his target. The Irish scrum help up for the most part too. These are very important facets to get right as scrums and lineouts provide the backs with the ball. On top of this, there were a couple of notable Irish performances. Geordan Murphy stood out in both attack and defence. The Leicester Tigers man showed tremendous composure as he went it to tackle Tigers teammate, Manu Tuilagi and stop a certain try. Murphy has surely been in the exact same situation on numerous instances at training for his club. He waited until Tuilagi extended his powerful hand off, Murphy then pushed Tuilagi’s arm out of the way, allowing him to make a clean tackle. This action was done in a split second but saved a try. Moments later, Geordan Murphy won Ireland a penalty and subsequent 3 points when he got shoulder charged by England’s Courtney Lawes.
Paul O’Connell also had a very big game. This does not tell us much going into a world cup though. The rugby community knows what a phenomenal rugby player O’Connell is. He is the heartbeat of the Irish team and has been for many years. He leads the Irish pack and calls the lineouts. His presence on the team instill confidence in his teammates. O’Connell’s toughest challenge is to ensure his teammates live up to his high standards.
On the negative side, Ireland may be very fortunate that they face the United States in their opening game of the world cup. No disrespect intended whatsoever as the United States, coached by former Irish coach, Eddie O’Sullivan, will take great heart in the recent Irish performances. However, Ireland will still be expected to beat the Eagles, who are themselves on a losing streak of two losses to Canada. If the first game for Ireland was against Australia or even Italy, there may be more room for concern. Teams should get better by each game and momentum matters in the world cup. Having said that, Ireland face newly crowned Tri Nations Champions, Australia in their second game.
Against England, Ireland were physically dominated at the rucks and breakdowns. The ball was slow to come out and facing England’s rushing defence yesterday, Ireland seemed bereft of ideas in attack and only once in the whole game did the Irish manage to pass the ball along their entire backline. Like the previous week, the backs’ passing was too lateral and nothing came of the attempted attack.
The biggest negative for Ireland yesterday was the loss of flanker David Wallace. Wallace has played a key role in Ireland’s and Munster’s successes over the years. He is a complete No.7 who offers just as much in attack as he does in defence. Wallace has suffered countless injuries and setbacks but somehow always managed to come back from injury a better player. This would have been the 35 year old’s last world cup and he was destined to make a big impact. Very sadly it is not to be. Wallace is not a man for histrionics and looked in considerable pain when his studs got caught in the grass and his knee gave way. He is a huge loss for Ireland and I wish him well for a very speedy recovery. Injuries are without doubt the worst enemy of any sports person.
Every single sports person in the world needs luck. Wallace’s heartbreaking injury provides another player not included in Kidney’s original plans to get into the Irish squad. One assumes that selection has to be Shane Jennings. Ireland need a proper openside flanker on the team. Wallace was the only out and out 7 in the squad. It would be too risky to have Sean O’Brien at openside. O’Brien needs to be in the team but his bullocking runs are nullified when he plays at 7 as he has to work a lot harder in defence then he would do at blindside flanker. Openside flankers have a lot of work to do in defence. From lineouts they must stay on the inside of the outhalf and stop any attacks down that channel. From scrums, they should be the first man making the tackle or competing for the ball at the ensuing ruck. Shane Jennings fits this role to a tee. He can be seen constantly conferring with outhalf, Sexton on attack and defence for Leinster and Ireland. He communicates well and rarely does he miss a tackle. His introduction at half time in the Heineken Cup saw Leinster overturn a 16 point deficit and become eventual winners. Jennings is a very intelligent rugby player and along with Leo Cullen has strengthened the mettle of Leinster rugby since their arrival home from Leicester Tigers.
Ireland depart for New Zealand on Tuesday.