This Saturday represents the most pressurised situation in which this England team has found itself since the World Cup. Frankly, until last weekend’s dismantling of a promising Scotland side, Eddie Jones’ men hadn’t quite seemed comfortable on their self-built throne.
A last-gasp win against Wales, the visible battle for tactical clarity against Italy, the occasional front-line creak at the mitts of the French behemoths - all of these chinks in England’s armour will have offered quiet shots of hope to their scheduled opponents.
Then the Scots arrived in body only at Twickenham and the men in white were given the chance to dance once more. And make no mistake, they needed that.
Landing in Dublin for an occasion as colossal as this final match of the Six Nations with no form to speak of would have doubled the pressure on them. Not only would England have had to deal with an Irish team hell-bent on forcing their administrative staff into hurried cancellations of open top bus tours, swanky receptions and hours of hungover press interviews, but they’d have had to find a performance, too.
Scotland, through their defensive play, gifted England a timely injection of confidence last Saturday. There must have been Irish fans everywhere cursing the apparent absence of resistance from the visitors as England ghosted through them at will.
So, that will help England, but still there remains the small matter of keeping their cool this weekend. Should England emerge from their steamed-up changing room too relaxed, they’ll be slaughtered like the Scots were. Likewise, should Dylan Hartley’s pre-match talk hit his players’ switches too hard, somebody might do a Fraser Brown and deflate his whole side by getting sin-binned early on due to a lack of control.
The key to managing this pressure, I think, is the psychological preparation during the week. From about Tuesday onwards, the players will have been taking time to visualise the situations in which they will inevitably find themselves - and how they intend to deal with them.
An England coach once told me that the most terrifying thing he ever heard a player say was that he didn’t really think about the game until Friday night.
“Winning starts on Mondays,” I clearly recall him telling us. The aim of this approach to dealing with predicted pressure is to ensure that as few situations as possible feel brand new come game time. It’s almost like implanting experience pre-emptively.
When England lost to Wales in the World Cup, the whole decision-making saga surrounding that key penalty suggested that this was a situation for which England had not been prepared. Thinking clearly in an environment like Test rugby is unimaginably difficult, so constantly feeling like you’ve been here before serves to make such decisions natural, automatic.
With Eddie Jones in charge, it just doesn’t seem feasible that England might choke. There seems, as their astonishing run of victories backs up, to be a bullet-proof edge to their thinking. However, think back to Cardiff just a few weeks ago. England, of course, found a way to win, but it took two frankly shocking Welsh errors on which to capitalise.
On that day, England could well have lost to a better side. This Saturday, there is every chance that Ireland will not make such mistakes at such key times. This is when England will have to have to find the performance worthy of a double Grand Slam. This is when England will have to recognise the pressure, mark it down and plough on into familiar territory.
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