I don’t think it’s a reliable form guide because I expect England to be much better this coming weekend. They will fear Ireland and that will make them dangerous. Once they went 17-0 up against Wales, I think they took their foot off the gas a bit. They looked like a team that expected to beat Wales and after they got on top it might have been a case of thinking their job was done. They ended up getting a fright because they let Wales back into the game and were hanging on a bit by the finish.
England will be a lot more wary of Ireland. I think they will be edgy and highly motivated. And of course they will be bringing their power game in all its ferocity. That is their trump card at home.
In my experience they love inflicting it on the visiting team at Twickenham. And the crowd loves watching them inflicting it on the visiting team. Of all the venues I’ve played in, Twickenham was the most hostile when the England team and the England supporters were in full battle cry together. It used to remind me of the Colosseum in those old gladiator films. The crowd would be loving it when England were putting you to the sword.
One of my worst experiences ever on a rugby field was in Twickenham in 2012. Our scrum was absolutely decimated. Mike Ross went off injured late in the first half and that was their cue to go to town on us altogether. They smashed us in the setpiece over and over. We were giving away penalty after penalty. The supporters were relishing it. ‘Swing Low Sweet Chariot’ was rolling around the stands. And we were being battered, almost humiliated. I remember one of the English papers the next day compared our front row to Patrick Kielty, Graham Norton and Fr Ted. So that must have made me Graham Norton.
Anyway, we were the sacrificial lambs that day and the crowd absolutely loved it. Their players were feeding off the energy coming down from the stands and the supporters were feeding off what the players were doing to us. You could sense almost this air of supremacy about the place. I’ve played in a lot of hostile venues but when England are on a roll in Twickenham, it is probably the toughest place of the lot.
The thing is, though, and I found this out too over my years playing there, if you can cope with their physical pressure, if you can match them in the arm wrestle, the place can go very quiet. The crowd has turned up expecting their team to dominate their opponents and if it doesn’t happen, they’re not sure how to react. The England players don’t know how to react either. They’ve played their trump card, we haven’t capitulated, so what do they do now? That’s the time when you can make hay. Suddenly Twickenham isn’t that fearsome after all.
One of the best experiences of my career was six years later at the same venue. The Grand Slam match in 2018. We took the game away from England that day. We fronted up, of course, but it wasn’t just about fronting up, it was about accuracy and discipline too.
It will be the same for the Ireland lads next weekend. It goes without saying that the forward pack in particular will have to front up. But accuracy and discipline will be important too because the better you are in these departments, the less chances you are giving them of getting access into the game. Make a few mistakes, give them a few turnovers or a few penalties, and suddenly they’re up and running; the crowd is up and running. They don’t need much encouragement to sniff a bit of momentum. They don’t need to be getting any help from their opponents in this regard.
And actually they might need a bit of help because they look to me like they are lacking a bit of confidence at the moment. Behind all the bravado from Eddie Jones, I’m not seeing a team that is bursting with confidence in themselves. They strike me as a team without a leader in the backline. I don’t think they have filled the void that Owen Farrell has left. Marcus Smith, for all his talent, could really do with having Farrell there to provide a platform of leadership and experience.
So once again they will be relying on their power game first and foremost to build momentum and confidence against Ireland. And obviously Ireland will be going there knowing how important it will be to stand up to it. If they do stand up to it, which I think they will, then all bets are off. It’s anybody’s game after that. Ireland might even be favourites to win in that kind of scenario. But England are capable of playing very good attacking rugby when they’re on the front foot. They are not as one-dimensional as maybe they are being perceived at the moment. They have the talent to cut a team open.
Ireland are more than capable of winning this one but I hope they will fear England as much as I expect England to fear them. It could be a very tense, claustrophobic battle. If Ireland are to win, I think they will have to produce a performance of the level they produced against New Zealand in the autumn.