Looking ahead to a ‘Titanic struggle’

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David Hennessy talks to Denis Hickie, former Ireland and Leinster wing and now analyst with BBC, ahead of Ireland’s crunch match against England

“One team at the end of this weekend will be out of the running for a Grand Slam,” begins Denis Hickie, talking about the crunch match between the Six Nations two unbeaten sides, England and Ireland, this Sunday. “Every other side in the tournament have lost. After this, there will only be one team standing who can take the Grand Slam. I don’t think it decides necessarily if a Grand Slam is going to be won but it will certainly rule out another side and we’ll certainly know one side who won’t.”

Although Ireland secured an impressive victory over France, Denis believes Ireland will have to raise their game if they are to make sure of victory over England: “I think England certainly represent a step up in challenge. I think their continued development under Stuart Lancaster is seen in their wins so far, particularly the manner of their win in Cardiff with much depleted resources shows how strong they are, how strong they’ve become.

“I think they have unearthed some very exciting attacking players who will probably test the Irish team in a manner which they haven’t had to face so far in this year’s competition.”

Jonathan Sexton made his return in Ireland’s French victory, inspiring Ireland to  victory. Can Sexton be expected to be even better in this match with two games under his belt? “I think all players need game time but such is his level of performance that he was able to put in the game he put in last week after three months away. I’m not sure many players in any country would have been able to do that. He really is world class in his application and his skills. He was excellent last week. I would go as far as to say he was the difference between the sides.”

Only Brian O’Driscoll has scored more tries for Ireland then Denis. Is it a concern that Ireland did not get across the line in their last match while the French did? “I think Ireland have shown themselves very adept at doing what they need to do to win. I think for some people that’s not enough but I think they have shown certainly in November beating Australia and South Africa, that when they need to unlock sides for tries, they will be able to do it. I think they left at least one good chance behind them against France which I’m sure they’ll want to improve on.

“England have a very, very good defence, it’s going to be very hard to break them down but not many teams have scored against Ireland either. Ireland haven’t conceded too many points in this championship so I expect to see a tight game but I’m sure both sides have the players and the philosophy to score tries. I think they want to score tries but it’s not as easy as that when you’ve got two sides with such defensive capabilities.”

Denis representing Ireland
Denis representing Ireland

Is Denis surprised how strong England have been with an impressive win at Millennium Stadium and then a comprehensive annihilation of Italy at Twickenham? “I’m not really surprised. The depth of talent that they have at all levels is something most countries, even the likes of New Zealand and South Africa, could only dream of.

“I think they have something like 166,000 senior players playing. Relative to that, Ireland has 25,000 registered senior players so they have a huge amount of playing resources to draw on. I think many people saw their injury list and said ‘for any other nation, that would be a catastrophic loss of players’, but such is the squad and numbers that they have and excellent players coming through the ranks, they were able to withstand that and I think what they’ve done in the process is actually brought through a group of young players who have proved themselves at test level in the very toughest of environments and won’t fear coming to Dublin.”

Ireland have enjoyed good form under the management of Joe Schmidt with their Six Nations defeat to England last year the only real major blot on his copy book: “I think he’s taken the team on, he’s developed it further since he’s taken over. I think all the players have huge regard for the way he coaches them. I think they have great faith in his ability to analyse teams and formulate game plans based on the opposition he’s playing. I think he’s shown that since he’s been coaching for all games except the England game last year. I think he gives Ireland every chance of playing to their best and playing for victory but when you’re playing against a formidable side like England, it’s not going to be easy. England won their last two, they’re going for three in a row against Ireland so it’s not an easy situation.”

Ireland have the advantage of playing England at home. How much does home advantage count for in these contests? “I think it does count for something. How much is up for debate. England came to Ireland two years ago and Ireland would have been favourites for that game but England really strangled them and ground them out on a wet day in Lansdowne Road.

“England were really able to withstand an Irish onslaught so on that day that home advantage didn’t count for enough.

“I think when you’re the home side, the familiarity, the home crowd and then the very concerted effort not to lose at home in front of your home crowd, I think that always drives on the home side. I think every team wants to defend their home patch and I think Ireland have a very strong record in doing just that. I expect it to be a very Titanic struggle at the weekend.

“There’s a new centre partnership with Payne and Henshaw. Henshaw’s only 20 years of age. I think that partnership is very much developing, very much a work in progress but I think it’s very encouraging the fact that they’ve been able to gel as well as they have in a very short space of time. That partnership will develop and they’ll develop their own attacking style. Hopefully we’ll see it this weekend, a bit more of it.”

Ireland will be without Jamie Heaslip after the Leinster number 8 was kneed in the back during the French match. France’s Pascal Papé has been banned from rugby for 10 weeks: “He(Heaslip)’ll be missed a lot. He’s an incredibly experienced player with two Lions tours under his belt and he’s obviously captain of Leinster so he has great leadership abilities. I think he’s just a great steadying force for Ireland and a controlling force in a very pivotal position. He is a big loss, I think any team would miss him not playing so hopefully we’ll see Ireland’s strength in depth which they were able to show in November when they themselves had a lot of injuries and had a very successful November. I think they’re certainly capable of withstanding the fact that he’s not playing  but he is a loss.”

On the incident, Denis says: “I didn’t see it as accidental. It’s a tough game, sometimes it goes beyond the level of what’s acceptable aggression and I think that’s what happened there in that particular incident. The sanction probably speaks for itself.”

The 2015 Six Nations exclusively live on the BBC across tv, radio and online. 

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