England Saxons 8 Ireland Wolfhounds 14: Three talking points
England Saxons 8 Ireland Wolfhounds 14: Three talking points as the visitors beat the hosts for the first time since 2011
Ireland full of riches
After the big three Irish provinces stormed into the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup earlier this month, the rich health of Irish rugby was evident to see again against the Saxons. The Six Nations team will certainly play a more attacking game, but head coach Joe Schmidt will have been pleased to see an experienced second-string come through a tough examination against England’s youth in difficult conditions. Should injuries befall Ireland’s stars, those waiting in the wings of their 46-man championship squad have already shown they can step up on the big stage. There is no shortage of options in the half-backs with Ian Madigan and Isaac Boss, three-quarters with a host of wing talent including Simon Zebo and Craig Gilroy pushing Andrew Trimble and Luke Fitzgerald, whilst Darren Cave, Robbie Henshaw and Luke Marshall could all stake a claim to replace Brian O’Driscoll and Gordon D’Arcy at centre. In the forwards, Munster’s Tommy O’Donnell, Leinster’s Rhys Ruddock and Cardiff’s Robin Copeland continue to see their stock rise, while Ulster second-row duo Dan Tuohy and Iain Henderson would be more than able replacements for Paul O’Connell, Mike McCarthy or Devin Toner. The misfiring performances of England’s A team show there is still some way for their third-, fourth- and fifth-choice players to develop, but the only major problem for Ireland is the lack of international opportunities. Schmidt’s big dilemma for this year’s Six Nations championship will be surely be when to deploy the depths of Irish talent and how he handles the non-selection of a number of players who, on form, deserve to play more international rugby.
We need to talk about Freddie
The Gloucester fly-half’s nightmare season continued on his home ground: missed tackles, missed kicks, poor handling. Given the chance to find some form ahead of the Six Nations, some may see it as unfair to put the defeat solely on the 23-year-old, but Freddie Burns failed to tackle Isaac Boss as he scored Ireland’s first try, saw two kicks rebound off the post and was unable to hold on to the ball as he went over the try-line at the death. All key moments which could have resulted in an England win. The continued loss of confidence and, more importantly, form means the talented youngster’s chances of featuring for England anytime soon would require an injury crisis at 10 with Bath’s George Ford and Northampton’s Stephen Myler the obvious back-up choices to Owen Farrell. There is no denying that Burns is one of England’s more creative 10s and offers something different to Farrell, but now his club future has been decided, he needs time away from the spotlight and pressure of international rugby. No matter how much England head coach Stuart Lancaster rates Burns and Saxons coach Jon Callard was pleased with his performances this week, selection based on reputation is never the right answer—there are better options available to him. Myler has to be the third fly-half for England in the Six Nations.
Back to the future
England coaches are thinking too much too soon about the 2015 Rugby World Cup. As hosts, perhaps there is more pressure to succeed. Stuart Lancaster’s Six Nations and Saxons squads certainly give the impression they’re looking well beyond this year’s championship. There have also been admissions that it’s about the future, even looking to 2019 in Japan. Bath fly-half George Ford, Northampton centre Luther Burrell and wingers Anthony Watson (Bath) and Jack Nowell (Exeter Chiefs) certainly deserve their call-ups after impressing for their respective clubs this season, but precocious talent rarely gets the job done alone. The Wolfhounds, with an extended championship squad allowing familiar pairings to across the pitch from provincial level and a wealth of, albeit limited, international experience, looked more assured throughout, seem to have an easier step for players to walk into the senior team when called on without being overawed. Comparing the England squads with Wales, it’s clear that the Six Nations’ reigning champions are focusing solely on building on their recent dominance in the competition. Ireland too have nurtured players better and aren’t looking too far ahead. Both countries have a good idea what their starting XV would be if everyone is fit. The same, however, cannot be said of England and even a second ‘A’ international on the eve of the Six Nations next week against Scotland doesn’t look like making that clearer. The Six Nations deserves more respect than England are showing.