Coming into the final round of Six Nations matches, the players are running on fumes. Emotionally and physically, they will feel spent. For both England and Ireland it will be a matter of who can rouse themselves for that final push.
If we have learnt one thing about him in his 18 months in charge, it is that Eddie Jones does not allow any let-up, any off-days. If his team have one foot on the opposition’s throat then he will demand that they apply the other one.
They were in this exact position a year ago with the championship already sealed, they won the Grand Slam in Paris. So too in Australia – with the series secured, they completed the whitewash. Now more history awaits them. A record 19th consecutive victory and back-to-back Grand Slams. That is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Make no bones about it – this team, the majority of whom were part of English rugby’s greatest embarrassment at the 2015 World Cup, stand on the verge of greatness.
Of course Ireland will want to spoil the party. No country harnesses emotional energy more effectively than Ireland, particularly against England in Dublin. Unlike other countries, it is a rousing passion not tinged by hatred, but it is no less powerful. There have been occasions when England have been overwhelmed by that green tide of passion, like at Croke Park in 2007.
But apart from their World Rugby ranking, Ireland are not playing for anything tangible. It will still be an enormous occasion. Would Ireland love it if they beat England on St Patrick’s weekend? Of course they would. But would the English love it more if they achieved that slice of immortality? Without doubt. Advantage England.
Yet emotions will only take you so far. You can summon all the emotion you possibly can but eventually that runs out and your body takes over. There is only so long you can rely on mind over matter. And this is where Ireland are at a real disadvantage.
Joe Schmidt’s team had an incredibly tough game against Wales. At BT Sport we have access to all manner of statistics, one of which is called HIP: high intensity periods. Effectively, you are measuring the ball in play versus ball out of play and the number of gain-line collisions.
The number of high intensity periods of play in Wales v Ireland was 46 minutes and the work-to-rest ratio was 0.9:1. In England’s game against Scotland it was 0.47.
Ireland made 166 carries in that game. England made 137 but made 200 metres more. Ireland gave it everything but the Welsh defence murdered them. Physically the Irish players took a hammering. They have lost to injury Conor Murray and Rob Kearney, two key cogs to how Schmidt’s team play. Even the game before Scotland, England did not need to contest any rucks against Italy so the whole team, and especially the pack, will be a lot fresher. Then they can recall Billy Vunipola and Anthony Watson, two potential Lions, after injuries. Those are some serious reinforcements.
More than anything I would take confidence from the way Eddie and especially Dylan Hartley have been leading this team. I have not always been Dylan’s biggest fan. I was surprised by his appointment and I have been critical of his form at times. But it is undeniable that he is becoming an exceptional leader.
I have been really impressed by the way he has interacted with the media. He presents this inscrutable front and gives nothing away. Obviously Eddie loves to chuck a few grenades here and there, but Dylan repeats the same mantras: we focus on ourselves, we want to improve, the next game is the most important. It is very easy after the way they have been playing and the performances that they have put in to drop your guard and be jovial. He has not done that once.
Ireland will have been looking for an extra jolt of motivation. Because you are saying the same words every week, captains and coaches are always looking for something to jump on to and attach the emotion to. Whatever they get, it will not be from Hartley.
He has become this very serious, almost Martin Johnson-like individual. Johnno had a certain love-hate relationship with the press; they loved him and he pretty much hated them. It really makes you a very stern and unforgiving captain, but his team-mates will love him for that. I get that sense with Hartley. He is basically ring-fencing this England brand. It is not allowing you inside. That may make journalists’ lives harder, but for a player that is a brilliant quality to have in your captain. It creates trust and loyalty. Those, above all, are the ingredients you need to be a truly great team.
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