With the 2017 Six Nations Championship won, England now travel to Dublin seeking all manner of records, whilst other teams fight for pride and Lions places.
We welcome back one of our regular Expert Witnesses to Planet Rugby – former Lions, Ireland and Leinster hooker, Shane Byrne, to preview an iconic weekend.
“Back to back Grand Slams, world records for unbeaten runs, St Patrick’s Day, British and Irish Lions place?
“There’s so many sub-plots this weekend it could be scripted by Agatha Christie!” remarked Shane Byrne.
“England’s dominance to win the championship with a week to spare is impressive, but when you look at the fixtures, they’ve fallen perfectly for Eddie Jones’ men to end in a fabulous climax in Dublin.
“Ireland will be chastened by the defeat in Cardiff and hugely disappointed by a display where they failed to dominate the forward exchanges and basically were on the end of a backlash from a high quality Welsh side that’s been underperforming all season,” he observed.
“England’s Scottish encounter was quite bizarre and I really expected the visitors to deliver up a much sterner test to their hosts, but they look tired, and unusually, tactically lacking.
“Vern Cotter did an excellent technical job on Ireland earlier this year, yet I feel he totally underestimated the brute power of England; to pick a back row of fast jackaling ruckers when you have no go forward power is absolutely pointless.
"Scotland were swept off the ball like sails in a breeze and when their focal playmaker Stuart Hogg went off, Scotland were dead and buried from that point onwards.
“Scotland’s muddled thinking was obvious when Henry Pyrgos replaced Mark Bennett and went straight to nine with starting scrum-half Ali Price thrown away to the wilds of the wing.
"If a guy is your best starting nine, why further disrupt a team with an unneccesary change, especially considering Pyros’ pass was absolutely glacial at times,” questioned Byrne.
“It made no sense at all.
“A lot of potential Lions also went off the radar; both Gray brothers, fantastic when they can roam the open pastures, came off very much second best as, in boxing terms, they went up a weight and found the punches a lot heavier.
"Scotland’s back row were utterly blown away and some doughty performers like John Barclay and Hamish Watson may now find they’ve no need for that New Zealand passport stamp they were so looking forward to getting."
“Looking forward to the English match, Ireland will be comfortable with being underdogs. It’s a position they relish and thrive upon and I expect Joe Schmidt to have prepared immaculately for this match.
“Schmidt’s game plan is going to be based upon three key things. Firstly, Ireland will look to disrupt and slow down every phase and every platform of England’s ball. They will jackal, choke tackle and barrel defensive pillars like there’s no tomorrow and the plan will be structured disruption.
"England rely upon fast precision passing from Ford and Farrell; slow the ball down at source and those passes become pressured, the players will look to unlock the defence with 50/50 decisions and Ireland will look to profit from defensive errors,” noted Byrne.
“Secondly, 19 of England’s last 32 tries have come off a lineout play. They use a lifted and driven back pod to tie in the back row defence, with either the nine or a peel carrier coming around the back of the line out to attack the 10 and 12 channel, which now is devoid of a forward defending (due to them still being tied into the pod drive), and then using the Brumbie ‘round the shoulder’ running lines to commit more players.
“As soon as the 10 or 12 are forced to step inside to tackle, the 13 and 14 have to cover three attackers on the openside and so a hole develops between the centres or the winger and the pace of the England midfield is good enough to get through that hole untouched. We saw Jonathan Joseph do this twice on Saturday and when executed well, it’s almost impossible to defend as you’ve run out of numbers.
“Lastly, bearing in mind the weather forecast of a wet and windy day, the selection of Fergus McFadden to replace the injured Tommy Bowe sends out a significant message of intent; Ireland are going to bomb the England back three and make them turn and defend all day with huge Garryowen’s followed by strong kick chasing,” observed the former Lions hooker.
No Option to Fail
What of England? Chasing their 19th successive win surely the laws of averages suggest they have to become derailed sooner or later?
Byrne believes England are so strong at this point they are setting new levels of performance goal.
“It’s chastening to say that England’s ambitions are so high that if they lose on Saturday, Eddie Jones will declare the Six Nations campaign a TOTAL failure. It’s a very binary thing; this match is almost World Cup final level in terms of its significance for England," he explained.
"They want to put a marker down to shock the world and this is their chance. Lose and the campaign is close to being a disaster for them, and I applaud the ambition they have when they consider a Championship is not complete without the Slam.
“The absolute key will be first 15 minutes. England are traditionally sluggish starters – the Scotland game aside – and if they concede a try early doors, they’ll be rocked and playing catch-up rugby. That plays into Ireland’s strengths- technically brilliant on the floor, they’ll look to apply pressure as I described at ruck time and use Sexton’s boot to keep England wanting.
“Finally, the Lions selection match-ups are also mouthwatering; Rory Best v Dylan Hartley; all four props, the back row, half-back and so on. I expect these players to form the core of the Lions touring side and one poor performance at this point is enough to cost you a tour place, as we’ve seen before. As a hooker myself, the battle between Rory and Dylan is a belter.
“Hartley, since his disciplinary issues, has really become quite a shadow of the player he once was. He cannot afford to transgress and that’s taken an edge off his game. Best is a great technician and a strong scrummager and he’ll use every tool at his disposal to push Hartley, make him react and get him angry,” said Byrne.
“Combine that with the pressure of not being the best hooker in England, and I think this battle is going to be a classic, one for the hooking connoisseur.
“In the final analysis I really believe this English side is the real deal and I cannot see them failing. But never say never, and I am delighted that Ireland go in without the pressure of a Slam, and looking to do everything to spoil the English roadshow
“After all, it’s St Patrick’s Day weekend and that’s OUR party!” quipped Byrne.
All To Play For
A much improved Wales visit France, a side that seems to take one step forward, one step sideways and one step backwards with each game.
Shane Byrne is mindful of the matches going with home advantage this year, but tips the Welsh class to sneak a rare away win in Paris.
“Looking back on the history of this fixture, Wales have been France’s bogey side for five or six seasons now. The brutal gainline game of the visitors has proven to be the downfall of France time and time again," he states.
“Again, there’s the Lions factor to consider. Virtually every player in the Welsh 23 has a chance of going and the performance on Saturday, Sam Warburton in particular who could seal the leadership with a good showing, will define their selection aspirations.
“Despite France having some rare quality of player coupled with the sheer professionalism being brought into the side by the best eight in the world, Louis Picamoles, I expect Wales’ sheer experience and quality in every unit, to shine through and them to take it by a couple of scores,” concluded Byrne.
Fighting for Pride
Murrayfield host Conor O’Shea’s inconsistent Italy, who are fast defining the phrase ‘a game of two halves’. Again, against France, Italy held out for the first half but capitulated in the second.
Byrne believes that Scotland are fighting to salvage pride, but Italy will smell blood.
“Scotland were perplexed against England," Byrne notes.
"Tired, jaded and crushed. Vern Cotter has been brilliant for them, instilling a system into the regions and reverting to the tried and tested Scottish strengths of rugged rucking and skillful three quarters.
“This is the last chance saloon for Lions selection for players like Finn Russell, Huw Jones, Tim Visser and others and they’ll want to give Cotter a massive send off as a thank you for his service.
“Italy will being a box of coaching tricks and a few world class operators, but frankly, I cannot see them coping with the Scots who will be desperate to salvage something for their exiting coach.
“Home wins are pretty much the modern theme and I see Scotland cutting loose in the second half to make this a memorable day for Cotter,” explained Byrne.
Finally, Shane Byrne has been instrumental in coordinating this year’s Ireland Legends versus England Legends, a match now played annually for charity, the night before the test match.
This year is no different and it’s an opportunity to watch some of the real greats of yesteryear as they play in honour of the great man of Munster, Anthony Foley.
“The game is being played in honour of my old mate ‘Axel’ Foley. All takings are being donated to his children’s trust fund and I hope that anyone visiting Dublin will come down to the RDS Stadium.
"The game starts at 6pm and players like Mike Tindall, Lawrence Dallaglio Gordon D’Arcy, David Wallace and many more are lacing their boots up for an evening of fun! Anthony’s sisters, Rosie and Orla, are our touch judges and this will be a very poignant event.
“We’ve raised €600,000 in the last five years and we intend to smash all records with this one. Please come along. Tickets can be obtained on http://www.ticketmaster.ie/ireland-legends-v-england-legends-dublin-03-17-2017/event/1800523AE8E67D33 and are priced very reasonably.
That brings this season’s Expert Witness to a close. We thank Shane for his time once again and we will be back in June to discuss the British and Irish Lions as they embark on the biggest test of all; a tour of New Zealand.
Ireland Legends v England Legends will take place in the RDS on Friday 17th March with kick-off at 6pm; tickets are currently available on Ticketmaster from €10. The game will be followed by a post-match function in the RDS surrounds.
For more information check out IRUPA’s Facebook page or follow @IRUPA on Twitter. #playingforaxel
Shane Byrne played 41 times for Ireland with four tests for the British and Irish Lions. A great technical hooker and world-class line out operator, he represented Saracens and Leinster at club level.
Shane was speaking to James While