Brendan O’Brien: This is as good a time as any to visit the Lions’ den

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By Brendan O’Brien

Dwayne Peel was in bullish form. Wales, though nursing a string of injuries, were Grand Slam champions and they were about to open their 2006 Six Nations campaign with a visit to Twickenham where none of their predecessors had managed a win in just under 20 years.

“England may have a good record at Twickenham, but they are not unbeatable there,” said Peel. “A number of sides have won there in recent years. We do not look on it as a bogey ground. Everyone is confident.”

You can probably tell what happened next.

England hit them for 43 points and six tries that day. Twenty-six points separated them by close of business. Wales would finally break that spell two years later with a sensational second-half comeback in Warren Gatland’s first game in charge but they, like the rest of England’s near neighbours, would learn to cherish days like that in London.

Twickenham is a strange mix of the magnificent and the meh.It’s an oddly unloveable place but maybe that’s just down to experience.

The home of rugby it may be but it has rarely made visitors feel welcome. In 20 years of Six Nations rugby, Twickers has let the visitors have the run of its halls only seven times. England have won 85% of their games there since Italy joined the community at the turn of the millennium. There is no more daunting address in European test rugby than TW2 7BA.

They put 80 points on the Italians once, hit Scotland for 61, Ireland and England for 50 apiece. Those numbers have come down but their strike rate in terms of wins has only shot up: they have lost just once there in their last 19 Six Nations games.

That it was Ireland who pulled their pants down that one time was no shock. England may have breached the 50-mark there again when the sides last met in August but that was an aberration and ultimately meaningless. Ireland have won in the English capital four times across the last two decades and none was sweeter than the 2018 win when they clinched the Grand Slam.

“That week our attitude and our mindset was really good,” Conor Murray recalled this week. “We knew we had to go to Twickenham and perform. Not necessarily take risks or chances, but go after the game and attack the game. We did that really well while it was one of our best performances defensively.” Murray alighted on Ireland’s eagerness to land one last blow as the half-time whistle approached, a ploy that ended with Jacob Stockdale’s try that established a 21-5 half-time lead. Among the tributes Joe Schmidt paid his players afterwards was one that hailed their courage in creating their scores.

Ireland know there is profit to be made in boldness this weekend. Not just because the venue demands it but because there is a sense of uncertainty around an England side that has found itself stumbling back down the mountain after their ascent to such heights when beating New Zealand in a World Cup semi-final.

The questions are multiplying over the English team and Eddie Jones. Are they hungover from that loss to South Africa in Yokohama? Do they have the right combinations? Can they hit fifth gear when both Vunipolas are absent and Manu Tuilagi is shy on match fitness?

Jones has been here before. Three defeats and a fifth-placed finish in the 2018 Six Nations was a rude awakening for a coach and a team that had won both the previous championships. The opening loss to France this year, on the back of his empty warnings about ‘brutality’, have invested this latest chapter with even greater meaning than usual. Other known unknowns cloud this picture too.

Matt Proudfoot and Simon Amor are hardly a wet week in their new roles as forwards and attack coaches. It will take time for those moving parts to move perfectly in sync with the rest of the England machine and rumbling away in the background is the neverending story that is Saracens’ fall from grace and the Premiership.

History tells us that there is no ‘good’ time to visit Twickenham. There is always the potential for the hosts to hit their straps and make this the longest day of the rugby calendar for an opponent, but a cautious sense of opportunity lingers as Ireland knock on the door on Sunday.

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