England host Ireland on Saturday, and despite what the losing coach says after the match, this fixture matters. It matter a lot
By Adam Hathaway
Whatever the result at Twickenham on Saturday when England host Ireland we can be certain of two things.
One coach will say that the result does not amount to a hill of beans in terms of the World Cup; they have learned a lot and were trying out some new combinations anyway. They will then, in time-honoured fashion, take the positives out of the afternoon, draw a line under it and move on.
The winning coach, whoever that is, will say the victory – over the tournament hosts or over the Six Nations champions – was a massive boost, proved all the doubters wrong, and will count for plenty down the line if the teams meet in the knock-out stages of the tournament.
Well, the one who is saying it is not worth a hill of beans will be wrong. It will amount to a hill of beans, and a very big one, especially if England are looking at the wrong side of the score-board.
Stuart Lancaster has a few things to sort and this is his last chance in a match situation before it all kicks off for real on 18 September against Fiji.
The England coach has already taken some flak since announcing his World Cup squad over the selection of Sam Burgess, the non-selection of Danny Cipriani and the ditching of Luther Burrell. But now he has picked his 31 men, he could really do with a win.
On Saturday he needs to see evidence that Geoff Parling and Tom Wood can shore up the line-out that creaked in Paris, that Brad Barritt and Jonathan Joseph can function together in midfield and the kicking game has come on since it was exposed in Dublin in March.
Joe Schmidt is in a slightly different position with the last two Six Nations in the bag – he has, as Lancaster says, ‘credit in the bank’.
England’s record since the last Six Nations is played 14, won seven, lost seven – hardly the stuff of champions – whilst Ireland’s recent scorecard is played 13, won 11, lost two and highly respectable. So England could probably do with the win a shade more than Ireland.
What they both have in common is they both lost their last matches and one of them will be heading into the World Cup with a losing run of two games.
That is not the stuff of champions either, unless you believe the propaganda.
Unsurprisingly, Warren Gatland was the first to raise his head above the parapet and say neither of England or Ireland would want to go into the World Cup with two straight defeats on the ledger.
On Thursday, Lancaster, who has named pretty much his best available team, was quick to point out that New Zealand lost their last two games before the 2011 World Cup, and we all know what happened there. Maybe it really is the stuff of champions to stuff up your last two Tests before the game’s biggest tournament.
Those games were against South Africa in Port Elizabeth and Australia in Brisbane, neither was at Eden Park where the All Blacks played their big World Cup games.
England’s match on Saturday is at the place, where they hope to play six World Cup matches, the other is in Manchester, so a loss is unthinkable.
Whichever coach is saying what, come tea-time on Saturday, this is a game Lancaster cannot to afford to lose.
But they will both be taking the positives…