Former Ireland hooker Shane Byrne on what Ireland must get right if they are to win at Twickenham
By Damian Dolan
Ireland must get their basics right at Twickenham if they are to clinch a third Grand Slam, says former Ireland hooker Shane Byrne.
The Leinsterman knows a thing or two about winning at Twickenham having been part of the Ireland side which in 2004 upstaged Clive Woodard’s England on what should have been their glorious homecoming, following their World Cup triumph a few months earlier.
On Saturday, Joe Schmidt’s side have the chance to become just the fourteenth Ireland team to taste victory over England at Twickenham in 108 years.
For that to happen, though, Byrne says Ireland’s scrum must be solid, their lineout flawless and unforced errors kept to an absolute minimum.
“We have to get the basics of our game correct,” Byrne told the Irish World. “You have to assume that, at home, England are going to put you under pressure.
“They’ll do enough to get in among you anyway, so you don’t want to be handing them anything extra.”
Key also for Byrne will be Ireland’s mind-set. Schmidt’s side will need to arrive at Twickenham believing they can win, and with a game plan to stifle an England side which may have failed to live up to expectation but remains formidable.
“You cannot take a step back. The traditional way of the England team is to bully you in the forwards and execute in the backs,” he said.
“That psyche is still there. If you have the ability it’s a great way to implement your game plan on to others.
“If you can match them, then it’s last man standing. But if you can get on top and don’t give them a second to breathe, and silence the crowd, it does have an effect. The longer you’re in the game the pressure is not on you, it’s on them.”
Byrne and his Ireland teammates certainly had the right mind-set in 2004. Ten years on from Simon Geoghegan’s match-winning Twickenham try, Irish rugby celebrated another glorious afternoon at the home of English rugby after a decade of humbling and heavy defeats.
Byrne was not immune; his third cap came in a 45-11 hammering at Twickenham.
2004 was going to be different however, as Ireland extracted revenge for the heavy Grand Slam showdown loss in Dublin the previous year at England’s hands.
A game memorable for Martin Johnson’s England lining up on the wrong side the half way line for the pre-match niceties, and then refusing to move.
“It was properly broached to us, as England were the first northern hemisphere side to win the World Cup, that we would line up and clap them on to the pitch,” said Byrne.
“Thankfully Brian O’Driscoll shot that down straight away. Everyone was like ‘we’re not doing that!’.
England had started the 2004 Six Nations well. Woodward’s men had beaten Italy and Scotland on the road, while Eddie O’Sullivan’s Ireland had bounced back from an opening weekend defeat in Paris to beat Wales, with Byrne scoring twice. The scene was set then, Saturday 6th March, 2004.
England were overwhelming favourites, but Ireland had been getting ‘better and better’ and they also had a game plan. As for Ireland’s mind-set, O’Sullivan made sure it was spot on.
“He told us ‘when you make contact with an English player, directly below you is a blade of grass. You make sure that when the contact is finished you’ve driven him back’.
“The absolute refusal to go backwards was the mind-set that day. Always be into them, always be the aggressor, never take a step back.
“We were very focused; we knew we could go over there and do a job. The biggest question was could we handle everything that they threw at us? We could.
“Once you have the mind-set right, we knew we could can handle anything they could throw at us.”
Ireland led 12-10 at the break thanks to four Ronan O’Gara penalties, with Matt Dawson going over for the home side.
The game plan had been to play ‘wide-wide’. Ireland now executed that perfectly. Rather than pounding away at the English line, two sweeping passes from D’Arcy and Brian O’Driscoll spread the play across the full width of the pitch, and Tyrone Howe sent Girvan Dempsey sliding over in the corner.
“When he [Girvan] scored the try Ben Cohen slid into him knees first and wrecked his leg – he drove his knee straight into his quad – and of course I was grabbing him going ‘yeh brilliant, get up!’. And the poor guy was screaming in agony,” said Byrne.
Byrne had been lurking on the left wing with Dempsey, and once the ball reached the hands of the Ireland full back it was up to him to decide what to do from there.
“Decide my arse, he was running for the line! I don’t think there was any doubt of him passing the ball. It [the try] was perfect; it was exactly as we’d trained for it.”
Ireland held on to win 19-13 and with it secure the rarest of rarities – an Irish victory at Twickenham. There truly is nothing sweeter. Schmidt’s men will be forever immortalised if they can do likewise.
Just as in 2004, there must not be a backwards step taken at Twickenham on Saturday.