With the 2018 Six Nations Championship won, Ireland now travel to Twickenham in search of ‘The Perfect Game’ and the Grand Slam, and we welcome back one of the regular Expert Witnesses to Planet Rugby, former Lions, Ireland, Saracens and Leinster hooker, Shane Byrne, to preview an exciting weekend.
With Ireland securing a bonus-point win against the Scots and England faltering in Paris, the game isn’t the winner takes all that it initially promised to be, but there’s still a number of interesting subplots to follow, notably trying to understand precisely what has gone wrong with Team England:
“I was commentating on the game in Paris and I have to say I was absolutely baffled by England,” announced Byrne.
“It was as if they were in some parallel universe!
“I expected urgency, a reaction, I expected them to come flying out onto the pitch to prove a point, I thought there’d be 15 men with a belly full of fire and anger and I expected commitment and direction.
“There was absolutely none of this and I have to say I am utterly perplexed why this didn’t happen,” questioned the former Ireland hooker.
“16 penalties, 11 turnovers and all France did was copy, precisely, what Scotland did, targeting the fourth and fifth ruck, double teaming tackles and hitting hard, and using the backs running right into the dog leg that Farrell often creates in the 12/13 channel. It was so simple and predictable it was laughable,” he exclaimed.
“When England’s ruck was smashed, just on a very basic level you react by increasing aggression at ruck time and get the trailers following the trucks into the ruck at pace. It’s not rocket science and it’s so obvious but somehow 23 Test players failed to do that. In fact things got worse and the penalties increased.
“You waited for England to change something, anything, but nothing happened at all. They were vacant, dormant. They didn’t react, they seemed almost to want it to happen and I just cannot fathom this at all.
“Haskell, Sinckler and Cowan-Dickie tried hard to inject pace and passion but by then, it was just too late.
“There are some very strange things happening in Club England right now and knowing Eddie Jones’ shrewdness, it genuinely makes me wonder if there’s some hidden agenda here that we’re unaware of. What mysterious point is buzzing in his bonnet?
“It’s such a bizarre state of affairs that you have to look outside of normal avenues of debate to try and find an answer. I suspect they’ll solve the Salisbury Russian assassination before we work out what’s happening with England!” quipped the Leinsterman.
“What occurred makes no sense and is completely inexplicable.
”When he then goes onto say in public about the lack of time with the side and then further criticises the format or performances in Premiership Rugby you have to wonder what he’s angling at and further wonder if he is his using this season to create a culture of uncertainty and to change the agreements with PRL and ERC?
“Looking to home, Ireland and Scotland can both be proud of their campaign and it was a great match in Dublin, with Scotland ruing the two or three clear tries which they left out there. It was a competitive game and the control exuded by Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton at half-back, with a driving display by the new shape CJ Stander just shaded it, but make no mistake, Scotland can blame themselves only for not getting closer and blew three clear tries.
“Scotland are looking to be on the upslope in a big way right now playing a lovely brand of rugby with the sublime Stuart Hogg, John Barclay, who has been the best player of this campaign, Finn Russell and Huw Jones as obvious stand-outs. When you look too at the others around, the likes of Horne, Denton, Maitland and Berghan, these guys are contributing well too, and Scotland are a formidable foe at home and improving greatly on the road. It was pleasing to see their pace and ambition, even if their execution let them down a little at times.
“Now, against England, and let’s assume for one minute that they decide to a) turn up b) play rugby c) play with commitment, then I want to see Ireland producing the complete game, the Perfect Storm if you will!
“I want all of the great glimpses we’ve seen from Garry Ringrose, Stander, Stockdale and co. to gel together and I want them to knit an all in one performance that shows we are number two in the world by right and by results, not through England’s demise and poor form.
“It could be magnificent. I can’t believe England can play so badly for a third time and in order to prepare the players, the coaches need to prepare them for England at their peak, not England of the last two weeks.
“Do that, and I reckon the Irish eyes may be smiling,” laughed Byrne.
Scotland’s visit to Rome looks like a dead rubber, but with the table still undecided, Byrne believes Scotland will go into the game against Italy in good spirit:
“I reckon there’s still a bit of movement in the table to come, and Scotland will want to finish with that elusive win on the road.
“What’s great about this fixture is I believe it’ll be open, attacking and fun from both sides, a bit of a party, if you will, and I think that’s great.
“We’ve spoken in depth about Scotland, and Italy showed glimpses against Wales on Sunday, but if you’re going to haemorrhage 14 points in six minutes through childish mistakes, you’re not going to win a Test match,” chuckled Byrne.
“Yes, Italy have developed a few players this year, but Conor O’Shea is a good pal of mine and I know how furious he’d be over those gifts in Cardiff.
“There’s no question Scotland will win and it’s a matter of pride for them that they do, but I do hope it’s an open and close game, something to remember as a fun fixture at the end of a tough road for all,” noted the Irishman.
Wales and Plan B
“The Wales/France game is an interesting one. Whilst Ireland, should they achieve a Grand Slam, will be the obvious success from this year’s tournament, there’s an undercurrent of quiet satisfaction in Wales, where a side decimated by injury has explored options, developed talent and also, crucially, played more than one style of rugby.
“You could argue, with some conviction, that Wales have been the stand-out this year and Warren Gatland will be overjoyed at the depth of squad, the quality of player and variety of tactics he’s managed to develop. With RWC2019 approaching, there will be a quiet confidence in Wales, and rightly so. I return to my point about there being pride and places to play for and both teams will be aware of that.
“France – well, we used to say in Ireland that success in the Six Nations was beating England. It rather depends on how they react to their win. Will they say ‘that’s us for the season, good work’ which would be ‘very French’ or will they use the momentum and confidence gained in the England game to push on?
“I really don’t know the answer to that; I gave up second-guessing Les Bleus many years ago, but I can’t see much stopping a Welsh team with a lot of artillery available. It’ll be quite interesting to see who Gatland goes with as he’s used over 35 players in this campaign and I think this will be a litmus of who has emerged as the key players from those experiments.
“It’s a nice place to be in, and I do hope France turn up to play as they did against England,” concluded Byrne.
Shane Byrne has again 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 to support a number of charities, including the Injured Players Fund. Players donning their boots include Gordon D’Arcy, Nick Easter, Lewis Moody, Mike Tindall and Byrne himself.
“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 here 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 summer Tests.
Ireland Legends v England Legends will take place at the Stoop on Friday 16th March with kick-off at 7.30pm; tickets are currently available on Ticketmaster from £9. The game will be followed by a post-match function in the Stoop surrounds.
The nominated charities for the match are: the RPA’s official charity Restart Rugby, Paul Curtis (ex-Harlequins player), The IRFU Charitable Trust, Rugby Players Ireland – The Injured Players Fund and The Cure Parkinson’s Trust.
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.
by James While