Ireland v England is last chance for Lions audition in front of Warren Gatland | Ugo Monye
Wherever Warren Gatland is basing himself in the UK at the moment, I imagine a whiteboard is never far away. There’ll be about 45 names on it and I’d have thought that by this stage he has a pretty good idea of his preferred starting lineup for the first British & Irish Lions Test against South Africa. Given Warren is going to be in Dublin this weekend, it is the final audition for several players to force their way into that 45, or make sure they don’t get a strike through their names.
All over the pitch are key individual match-ups and, although players won’t say so in public, they know an impressive personal performance could make all the difference. This match is particularly significant because it is unlikely to be the high-tempo affair of England v France. It will be physical, it will be attritional and as a result it will be similar to facing the Springboks. As for England players, they have the benefit of performing away from home, on which Warren places great importance.
For the Saracens players, this is pretty much the last chance they have to impress. I expect Warren will pick two or three players who haven’t featured during the tournament so Six Nations form doesn’t count for everything, but for guys such as Elliot Daly and Billy Vunipola this really is the opportunity to make sure they are on that whiteboard.
George Ford is another who could do with a big performance, up against Johnny Sexton, and I think this is a great audition for Luke Cowan-Dickie. If there are doubts about his lineout throwing then where better to prove himself than in Dublin against an Ireland lineout that, under the stewardship of Paul O’Connell, stole 75% of Scotland’s ball last Sunday – that’s a crazy statistic. Ireland, too, have plenty of players looking to state their claims. I look at CJ Stander and Keith Earls: they are not the most fashionable of players in their positions but they are rock solid performers and Warren will know he could do a lot worse.
It was interesting to hear Ellis Genge talk this week about the psychological toll of being in the bubble and, while we’re all obviously hoping things have loosened up a bit by the time of the Lions tour, that will come into Warren’s thinking too. Even in normal times it is not just the player, it is the personality that Warren will be looking at and if there are restrictions about what you can do when in camp together, which may have an impact on how quickly you can bond players from four nations, that only emphasises the importance of picking the right people. When I toured South Africa with the Lions in 2009 we had Andy Powell, who didn’t play a minute of the Tests but was such a key figure for driving the culture.
If that is the backdrop against which England face Ireland, the players are more than professional enough to get on with the task in hand once they get themselves into the zone. For me, England against Ireland is always a huge fixture so I don’t really buy into the idea that, given neither side can win the title, we’ll see an open match. I remember Martin Johnson refusing to budge in 2003 and Ireland winning the grand slam in 2018 at Twickenham, while Andy Farrell will be desperate to stop England’s four-match winning run in the fixture.
The common theme of those victories has been England’s physicality; Ireland simply haven’t been able to live with the power of their ball-carriers. But against Scotland last Sunday I saw positive signs for Ireland. They seemed to be back to being the best version of themselves. Their ball retention was outstanding and their ruck efficiency brutal, and Sexton was masterful at controlling the game. Sometimes we want players to be something that they are not; but while Sexton is never going to be a Romain Ntamack or a Matthieu Jalibert, his game management can be imperious.
Ireland need a statement victory under Farrell: I’d argue they haven’t had one since they beat the All Blacks three years ago, but there are signs they are harnessing their traditional strengths and O’Connell has made a huge difference.
Ultimately, I think there will be four key areas. First, the battle in the air, which is always relevant when these sides meet. They both like to kick a lot and are both accurate in doing so. Second, the battle on the floor which comes down to the gainline and the breakdown. The third thing is discipline, because taking Italy matches out of the equation, all games have been one‑score contests apart from Wales v England. And fourth, the team who win will be the team who take their chances, because they are not going to be many.
As a result, I don’t expect the same kind of performance from England as last week but a victory and strong showing to go with it will bring the curtain down nicely on what has, at times, been a difficult campaign. If you’re a punter watching a rugby match, it’s the last 20 minutes that stays with you. A clanger in the first 20 will be forgotten about if your team make up for it in the closing stages and send you away on a high. The same goes for England’s campaign.