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‘No scrum, no win’ - Ireland relishing set piece challenge vs England

Six Nations: Scrum coach John Fogarty insists Ireland’s pack can expect a battle up front if they are to help claim the spoils at Twickenham

Rarely, if ever, has a bonus-point Six Nations win away from home felt so tortuous. England lock Charlie Ewels was red-carded in the second minute and Ireland led by 15-6 approaching half-time. Yet with 15 minutes remaining the score was 15-all before Ireland ultimately pulled clear.

Ireland were indebted to their bench that March day in 2022, particularly the calming influence of Conor Murray and the oomph of Jack Conan and Finlay Bealham, who both scored tries in the final nine minutes to secure a 32-15 win.

Opinions varied as to the merits of the Irish win, but they were always likely to benefit more from being subjected to a wave of energy from the home team and an indignant home crowd, and the interpretation of the scrum by Mathieu Raynal, than if they won in a canter.

That was demonstrated in the second Test in Dunedin three months later when Ireland becalmed a New Zealand rally after a 31st minute red card for Angus Ta’avao to register a first ever away win over the All Blacks by 23-12. The lessons remained pertinent when Ireland again subdued a 14-man French insurrection on opening night in Marseille in this Six Nations after the 32nd-minute dismissal of Paul Willemse to win 38-17.

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Yet listening to John Fogarty after the squad’s training run in the IRFU HPC on Tuesday, you’d be forgiven for thinking Ireland lost at Twickenham two years ago.

“That was a huge disappointment,” said Fogarty, adding: “It was a big moment for us as a group. It was frustrating.”

Unusually, he even went so far as to say: “I think the referee got a few things wrong that day.”

But, then again, as the team’s scrum coach, the concession of five scrum penalties hurt Fogarty as much as anybody.

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“There was a lot of chaos on the field that day,” he recalled. “Coming on to the field, we were rattled. I guess we were trying to figure out what we needed to do to stem the flow a little bit. But it was an unbelievably frustrating day.”

Fogarty spoke of the pictures the Irish scrum showed, of giving England momentum, and of learning to deal with the chaos, of maintaining calmness and accuracy, as well as making technical adjustments.

“Our front row was detached. I think that’s them trying to be dominant. I’m not going to call them an illegal scrummaging side. There’s a rich history of scrum, and culture of scrum, in England. We need to deal with how our front rows are positioning themselves and how we need to make sure we’re not creaking.

“So, they did a good job. They delivered, I think it was, five penalties for their team. We needed to be better and deal with them. I hope, and I’m pretty certain, we’re in a better place now to be able to deal with some of that stuff. We’ll see. It’s going to be a big day.

“We’re still not where we want to be at scrum time but on our own ball, we’re at 94 per cent launch which is top of the pile,” said Fogarty, also noting Ireland had only conceded one penalty on their own put-in.

“We’re in a good place but the wrong mentality, get ahead of yourself, and you let them in. We don’t want to give any team momentum. We don’t want to give any momentum to England at the weekend.

“It’s going to be a huge part of the game. We’re preparing for a massive battle and Nika [Amashukeli], the referee, he’s got a job on his hands because it’s a huge occasion for both teams to go and do something meaningful. So, it’s a big part of the game that we’ve preparing for.

Asked if Ireland can win without a functioning scrum next Saturday, Fogarty chuckled and said: “No scrum, no win.”

He added: “I would hope not to replicate what happened last time around. I don’t want to think about having to deal with that again. This team is a good side. We can score some points and all that, but we want to improve every week and we want to put a better version of ourselves on the field than in the previous games.”

Fogarty’s spirits were perhaps helped by Hugo Keenan, Garry Ringrose, Iain Henderson and Oli Jager all training in Tuesday’s non-contact session, albeit we’ve been told this before and it hasn’t always led to a clean bill of health. Besides, the quartet’s availability hinges on them also coming through the more full-on Wednesday contact session before the team is announced at lunchtime on Thursday.

Fogarty has also watched more than enough Irish losses at Twickenham not to read much into their status as 11-point favourites this week.

“I watched a lot of Irish teams struggle [at Twickenham] and we struggled massively at times in the last two visits because it’s such a tough place to go and play.

“I guess the lads don’t tend to dwell on where they’re even at now. We’ve got really good competition within the group. You look at the two packs. Tomorrow is our big training day, and when we train it’s incredible.

“We don’t do a lot of live stuff but when we do set-piece on a Wednesday, the maul and scrum for example are great competitions, and that’s what’s driving performance and what’s driving each of them to get better.”

England will also be more highly charged and motivated to respond after their defeat in Murrayfield.

“They are a week later with their coaching group,” said Fogarty. There are really good coaches in that group and they are going to be figuring things out. All that energy will be with them. We’re expecting a better England, a team that is hurt a bit and highly motivated.”

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times