Saturday, 28 February 2015

Six Nations Preview - Ireland v England

Ireland and England don't do things by halves.  One is always on a winning streak - think of the men in green continuously ransacking Twickenham from 2004 onwards, with the notable exception of 2008, an anomaly if you will; tomorrow's hosts racked up 7 wins out of 8 encounters with the current Championship leaders, England.  They were a bogey team.  But so often one game can change the sway of things - a Manu Tuilagi-inspired England cruised to a win at the Aviva Stadium in a World Cup warm up game, and then went to work on the men from across the Irish sea in proper fashion, racking up three consecutive wins, including a brutal arm-wrestle at Twickenham last year.  Yep, from being Ireland's 'banker' fixture of late, they've now gone 4 games and 4 years without beating their bitter rivals.

Joe Schmidt's side though will take comfort in knowing that despite all that, they are reigning Champions and, despite only operating in third gear (at best), they are still two from two and on course for a grand slam.  They can also take comfort from the fact that they are back playing in front of the Dublin faithful - and that in itself can stir levels of performance that simply can't be matched by their rivals.  Think of Croke Park in 2007, or the Aviva in 2011.  England left with their tails between their legs, and the men in green will be wanting more of that local witch-craft once again.

But this is a different England side, as they showed with their gritty - and yet enterprising - win over Wales in Cardiff.  With his hand forced by injury in some cases, Stuart Lancaster has stumbled across a side that can threaten with both power and creativity and, most importantly, a side that does not hang too much on previous defeats.  They know they face an Ireland side who will be aggressive and physical, with one of the world's best generals steering the ship in Johnny Sexton, but they also know that they have shown vulnerability in their opening two games.  This England side is excited, not scared, about this fixture.

The Aviva Stadium on Sunday afternoon will be the setting for the most eagerly-awaited match of the tournament so far, and it is all set to be the most brutal and tightly contested as well.  As I said, they don't do things by half.

Ireland Team News

Jordi Murphy replaces the injured Jamie Heaslip at number eight in Ireland's sole change to the starting XV to face England, with the Leinster man sidelined thanks to impromptu and ill-advised attempt at a highland fling by Pascal Pape, which connected with Heaslip's back a fortnight ago.  Tommy O'Donnell and Eoin Reddan replace Murphy and Isaac Boss respectively on the bench.

Starting Line up:  15-Rob Kearney, 14-Tommy Bowe, 13-Jared Payne, 12-Robbie Henshaw, 11-Simon Zebo, 10-Jonathan Sexton, 9-Conor Murray; 1-Jack McGrath, 2-Rory Best, 3-Mike Ross, 4-Devin Toner, 5-Paul O'Connell (c), 6-Peter O'Mahony, 7-Sean O'Brien, 8-Jordi Murphy
Subs: 16-Sean Cronin, 17-Cian Healy, 18-Martin Moore, 19-Iain Henderson, 20-Tommy O'Donnell, 21-Eoin Reddan, 22-Ian Madigan, 23-Felix Jones

Key Player

Devin Toner.  Eclipsing everyone as the tallest man on the park, Toner has previously struck me as a bit of a beanpole with questionable hand-eye co-ordination, resembling Bambi on ice in his earlier years.  But the Leinster lock has certainly hardened into a formidable operator in the heart of the Irish pack - but, although he is a force at the breakdown and in defence (especially adept at the old 'choke' tackle), Toner's biggest role will be in the lineout.  Hartley has not looked as unshakeable as usual with his throws and Toner will know there is an opportunity to use his huge frame to make a nuisance of himself - and in a game where territory and set-piece are expected to be crucial, that could be a game-changer.

England Team News

England head coach Stuart Lancaster has made two changes from the side that beat Italy last time out.  Alex Goode is in at full-back for the concussed Mike Brown, while winger Jonny May makes way for Jack Nowell, the Gloucester flyer paying for butchering several try-scoring opportunities and impersonating a wet-flannel with an attempted tackle last time out against Italy, resulting in a try.

Starting Line up:  15-Alex Goode, 14-Anthony Watson, 13-Jonathan Joseph, 12-Luther Burrell, 11-Jack Nowell, 10-George Ford, 9-Ben Youngs; 1-Joe Marler, 2-Dylan Hartley, 3-Dan Cole, 4-Dave Attwood, 5-George Kruis, 6-James Haskell, 7-Chris Robshaw (c), 8-Billy Vunipola
Subs: 16-Tom Youngs, 17-Mako Vunipola, 18-Henry Thomas, 19-Nick Easter, 20-Tom Croft, 21-Richard Wigglesworth, 22-Danny Cipriani, 23-Billy Twelvetrees

Key Player

Alex Goode.  Poor bloke, if it wasn't bad enough sharing a surname with possibly the least athletic fly half of all time (I still love you, Andy), the Saracens man has been subjected to a barrage of unjustified criticism following his return to the England team - it's fair to say that his return isn't the most universally popular of calls by Stuart Lancaster.  But Goode has been in sparkling form for Saracens, and although he may lack the explosiveness and power of Brown, he does have strengths which may suit the way Ireland play - he is strong under the high ball, an intelligent footballer and a great kicker, which will be critical in the battle for territory.  He may not be as exciting as Israel Dagg, but do not write Goode off just yet.

Key Battle

Johnny Sexton v George Ford.  Another test of George Ford's maturity has been preceded by gushing references to one another's ability by both fly halves, but rest assured that this will be one of the most high-pressure battles on the pitch.  Sexton has forged a reputation as probably the best tactical fly-half in world rugby, with the ability to dictate where his side plays with faultless decision making and sublime execution.  Ford has similar abilities in his armoury but the mental side of his game - the ability to make the right decisions, and kick his goals, under pressure - still comes under scrutiny.  I expect England to have the upper hand in the scrum and on the carry and Ford simply has to do what Sexton would do and turn those small advantages into big gains - otherwise, the Leinster-bound 10 will find a way to claw his side to victory.


It's another brutally hard one to call, which is not surprising considering that I expect this game to be arguably the most physical of the championship.  Last year's game at Twickenham was a full-on war but Ireland haven't really hit those heights yet this season.  They have struggled for fluency and invention and England, more than their hosts, have their tails up.  I expect the visitors to get the nudge on in the scrums and potentially break the gainline more than their opponents, but so much depends on how Sexton is managed.  The fly half is still, realistically, finding his way back to match fitness so, if England can apply enough pressure, I'll think they'll sneak a win.  England by 3.


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