Friday, 4 September 2015

World Cup Warm Ups - England v Ireland Preview

It's "just" a warm-up, but a week's worth of results has threatened to upset the apple cart of confident pre-tournament conditions that had England as second-favourites and the Irish as dark-horses. Two defeats – and two worryingly shaky performances – have cast just a shadow of doubt to creep over the two sides' otherwise unswervingly positive preparations for the World Cup; one more defeat, and it's possibly not overstating matters to say that creeping doubt could bloom into full-blown panic. Well, from some sections of the media anyway.

England were simply not at the races in Paris for 70 minutes. It's hard to blame a backline without ball, but George Ford looked nervous under pressure – however, the pack were the real cause for concern, mercilessly bullied in the contact area and exploited in the set piece. That isn't a description you usually attribute to an English pack. But, with a last warm-up game against Ireland, and an outing at HQ, comes a chance at redemption. The hosts have had two weeks to iron out the plethora of problems that turned their lineout into something as simple to read as top-shelf magazine and to get their defensive positioning and mindset correctly attuned. Against a powerful, aggressive Irish side, they simply cannot afford to be as soft as they were in the contact area once again and, looking at a relative advantage in the front row, they have a real chance of getting the upper hand at scrum time.

At this stage, selection always dominates the headlines and, with this supposed to be an almost first-choice line-up, it's understandable why. Lancaster has turned to lineout guru Geoff Parling to solve the lineout woes whilst Tom Wood is another real target in the backrow – more so than James Haskell (although I think Wood hasn't offered anywhere near the amount of industry Haskell has over the last 2 seasons). In the backs, it's all relatively uncontroversial as we see the power-running 12 preferred, with Brad Barritt returning from injury to provide a stabilising influence in the middle and Johnny May – surprisingly for me – is preferred over Jack Nowell, England's best player in France. And, of course, Sam Burgess is lurking on the bench, ready for another good hit out at 12. The very fact they've included him in the squad, despite his inability to cover other positions in the backline (compared to, say, Nowell) tells me that there is a serious train of thought amongst the England coaches to start him come World Cup.

Ireland will certainly provide the test Burgess – and England – need if they are be ready for a serious tilt at the Webb Ellis trophy. Against Wales they were flat and uninventive, they were out fought at the breakdown and, surprisingly, Sexton was all over the place with his kicking. They have their own demons to fix, but from an England point of view it will be fascinating to see how Burgess, once he comes on, deals with that patented Irish 'wrap' move, designed specifically to isolate and suck in the inside centre.

With the mood of a nation heading into a World Cup on the line, I'm not so sure 'warm-up' is an appropriate description. Things seem to have hotted up already.

England Team News

Brad Barritt will return from injury and Geoff Parling will feature in the second row as a near first-choice England side host Ireland in their last World Cup warm-up game on Saturday. Defensive lynchpin Barritt, who now has almost no nose, who has not played for England since November 2014, starts at inside centre.

Rugby league convert Sam Burgess, who made his debut in the same position 10 days ago, is on the bench. Tom Wood joins captain Chris Robshaw and Ben Morgan in the back row. On the wing, Jonny May is given another chance to impress and he joins Anthony Watson and Mike Brown in the back three.

Barritt and Jonathan Joseph - understood to be England's preferred centre partnership - will start a Test together for the first time.

Starting Line-up: Mike Brown (Harlequins); Anthony Watson (Bath Rugby), Jonathan Joseph (Bath Rugby), Brad Barritt (Saracens), Jonny May (Gloucester Rugby); George Ford (Bath Rugby), Ben Youngs (Leicester Tigers); Joe Marler (Harlequins), Tom Youngs (Leicester Tigers), Dan Cole (Leicester Tigers), Courtney Lawes (Northampton Saints), Geoff Parling, Tom Wood (Northampton Saints), Chris Robshaw (capt, Harlequins), Ben Morgan (Gloucester Rugby).

Subs: Jamie George (Saracens), Mako Vunipola (Saracens), Kieran Brookes (Northampton Saints), Joe Launchbury (Wasps), Billy Vunipola (Saracens), Richard Wigglesworth (Saracens), Owen Farrell (Saracens), Sam Burgess (Bath Rugby).

Key Man
Geoff Parling. The bearded wonder returns. Geoff may look like a Geography teacher, but his importance has been magnified following the lineout wobbles of the previous two games. Tom Youngs unfairly got a lot of flak for his throwing in Paris but his was no worse than Rob Webber's or Jamie George's – and a whole lot better than Luke Cowan-Dickie's. The problem hasn't, in general, been underthrows or overthrows, it's been interceptions – the plays are being read far too easily and it allows the opposition jumpers to get in and cause havoc. Parling is a self-professed 'lineout geek' who has shone on the highest level before – for the Lions – and he will need to recapture that form and intelligence in the lineout if they are to avoid the gadget arm of the gargantuan Devin Toner.

Ireland Team News
Ireland coach Joe Schmidt has named a strong team to face England in Saturday's final World Cup warm-up game. The line-up includes 12 of the side which started in the Six Nations-clinching win over Scotland in March. Changes from that game see Simon Zebo at full-back instead of Rob Kearney with Dave Kearney and Jack McGrath in for Luke Fitzgerald and Cian Healy.

Prop Healy is not risked as he continues his recovery after surgery.

Starting Line-up: Simon Zebo (Munster); Tommy Bowe (Ulster), Jared Payne (Ulster), Robbie Henshaw (Connacht), Dave Kearney (Leinster); Johnny Sexton (Leinster), Conor Murray (Munster); Jack McGrath (Leinster), Rory Best (Ulster), Mike Ross (Leinster); Devin Toner (Leinster), Paul O'Connell (Munster) capt; Peter O'Mahony (Munster), Sean O'Brien (Leinster), Jamie Heaslip (Leinster).

Subs: Richardt Strauss (Leinster), Tadhg Furlong (Leinster), Nathan White (Connacht), Donnacha Ryan (Munster), Chris Henry (Ulster), Eoin Reddan (Leinster), Ian Madigan (Leinster), Darren Cave (Ulster).

Key Player

Johnny Sexton. The Leinsterman was imperious against the same opposition in the Six Nations, forcing an ambitious English side back into their territory time and time again as he picked the corners with laser-guided precision from his boot. Last week, however, the Lions fly-half was more than a little rusty – the radar was a bit wobbly from hand, his passes lacked a bit of fizz and there were uncharacteristic errors all over the shop. Against Wales, a usually fluid and efficient backline looked as likely to score as Graham Rowntree at a Victoria's Secret party. Sexton has to find his rhythm with the boot because, if he does, he can frustrate this England team into mistakes and, when he's on song, he's among the best in the world at taking full advantage.

Key Battle

Chris Robshaw v Sean O'Brien. The two number sevens are always looked to as barometers of their team's performances but there's added pressure this week – and not just because of the World Cup around the corner. Both sides got hammered at the breakdown last week – England, because they lost the contact time and again, which severely restricted the opportunities to snaffle turnover ball and Ireland because they lacked dynamism and intelligence at the breakdown. Both, whilst not being 'classic opensides' (as the lazy argument goes), have big roles to play. Robshaw needs to lead the defensive charge and make sure that he is at the forefront of an effort to get up quickly and chop down defenders behind the gainline, whilst O'Brien needs to inject a bit of subtlety – the Irish pack made plenty of solid hits, but positioning himself to stay out of contact before getting over the ball at the right moment will be key.


This may be just a warm-up game, but this is the final warm-up game before the big showpiece and now has extra importance after disappointing defeats in their last outings. For England, the pressure is greater, however – they are at home, at Twickenham, and if they can't get back to winning ways and produce a performance which inspires confidence, a little bit of self-doubt will creep in. Specifically England need their set piece, particularly the lineout, to improve dramatically, they need to win the collisions – as they did in the Six Nations – and they need George Ford to rediscover his composure. Ireland won't give them anything on a plate though and Joe Schmidt will not allow his team to go from dark horses to also-rans, so expect a fired-up Irish team and a feisty encounter. I think England, though, will rise to the challenge and nick the win with an improved display. England by 6.

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