Preview: England v Ireland
Twickenham hosts a Test with serious Six Nations title implications as England and Ireland look to edge closer to the coveted silverware on Saturday.
It’s as big as it gets in the Six Nations.
Less than 24 hours after a similarly significant showdown between defending champions Wales and France in Cardiff, Ireland – who enter the round at the top of the table – face their acid test in a confident and capable England side.
Stuart Lancaster’s men will be buoyed by home comforts after having started the campaign with back-to-back away games and couldn’t have asked for a better homecoming match than one against a red-hot Ireland on Saturday.
The Irish made a strong opening statement in their 28-6 victory over Scotland, but then they were always expected to get past the Scots with relative ease at home.
It’s their clinical 26-3 annihilation of Wales in Round Two that really forced the rugby fraternity to take notice. The lopsided win vindicated this Irish outfit.
It proved that they are the real deal and that the last-gasp loss to the All Blacks – when it had looked for all money that Ireland would shock the world – was no fluke.
It’s still early days but Joe Schmidt has, rather remarkably, transformed Ireland at such a rate that they have gone from Six Nations darkhorses to legitimate title contenders.
It’s clear that the squad have welcomed Schmidt’s arrival and have bought into his coaching philosophy, vision and style of play. They seem headstrong, no longer doubting their ability against top competition.
They take the fight to the opposition and their balanced game plan has seen them score five tries in two Tests and concede just nine points. Their resolute defence will be tested by England, one of the better attacking teams in the competition, and the passion and intensity should be off the charts.
The Irish play away from the Aviva Stadium for the first time this season, and few challenges are greater than toppling England at Twickenham. The luxury of continuity will stand Ireland in good stead, the visitors able to field an unchanged starting XV with just two changes to the bench.
Following their heart-breaking late loss to France in Paris, a second defeat will all but end England’s title challenge. It’s a must-win for Chris Robshaw and company, thus one can expect a massive effort from the men in white come Saturday.
Like Ireland, England have made just two changes to their matchday 23 – they are, however, pivotal changes. David Wilson comes into the vital tighthead berth due to injury to Dan Cole and will be up against arguably the form front row of the competition.
Lancaster said he has complete faith in Wilson, who he described as a well-rounded front row forward.
“Scrummaging is obviously a big part of the game. In some matches you can a long time without a set-piece, but there are always key moments in a game that require a good tighthead and fortunately David Wilson is one of those.
“He was exceptional last year for us after a great end to the season for Bath. His injury was unfortunate, but he’s also been in good form this season.
“He’s underrated around the park – I picked him for the Argentina Test on the back of his loose play as well as his tight play, so I have confidence in him in that regard.
“He is a good ball-carrier, a good defender and a very good line-out lifter as well. He understands the game and is one of our more experienced players,” Lancaster told RFUtv.
The other change is the inclusion of uncapped George Ford on the bench. The Bath flyhalf is bound to make his debut in a high stakes situation, and Lancaster feels the youngster is ready to make the step up to Test rugby.
“He’s been with us for three weeks which is a big help. He had a couple of training sessions before that first game against France but in a key leadership position it is not right to throw someone in without giving them a chance to settle. I feel he’s done that in camp and understands the systems and structures well.
I feel he’s grown in that leadership role. As a fly half he has to boss everyone round and at 20 years old it takes some doing. He’s also gone back to his club and played well – his form has been excellent there for the last two months.
“If we lose a centre he would probably come on with Owen [Farrell] shifting to centre. If we lost Owen, he’d come on there. It’s hard to predict though, and I won’t go into the game with a pre-set idea,” said Lancaster.
Players to watch:
For England: David Wilson will have a target on his chest as the new man in the front row and the disruption, rather than his own capabilities, will make him a possible weakness in the eyes of the Irish. Johnny May and Danny Care have both been in fine form, as has big battering ram Billy Vunipola. Joe Launchbury will get stuck in at the frontline while debutant George Ford will have all eyes on him when he comes on.
For Ireland: Both Andrew Trimble and Dave Kearney are in deadly finishing form and Conor Murray is coming off a tactically superb performance. Jamie Heaslip is hard as nails at No.8 and the front row of Cian Healy, Rory Best and Mike Ross continue to go from strength to strength. On the bench, look out for Iain Henderson, who comes into the side for the injured Dan Tuohy, and uncapped loose forward Jordi Murphy.
Head to head: There are mouth-watering positional battles aplenty. As always, the flyhalf battle between Owen Farrell and Jonathan Sexton will be crucial. England skipper Chris Robshaw has to attempt to neutralise Peter O'Mahony, who produced a breakdown masterclass against Wales. The extent of Courtney Lawes’ line-out development will be revealed as he goes up against one of the best in the world in vastly experienced Ireland captain Paul O'Connell. It’s youth versus experience as Billy Twelvetrees and Luther Burrell tackle Gordon D'Arcy and Brian O'Driscoll – the latter equalling Wallaby great George Gregan as the most-capped Test player of all time – while two of the competition’s form players collide in Mike Brown and Rob Kearney.
2013: England won 12-6, Dublin
2012: England won 30-9, London
2011: England won 20-9 Dublin
2010: Ireland won 20-16, London
2009: Ireland won 14-13, Dublin
2008: England won 33-10, London
2007: Ireland won 43-13, Dublin
2006: Ireland won 28-24, London
2005: Ireland won 19-13, Dublin
2004: Ireland won 19-13, London
Prediction: England would have been favourites to end their Six Nations drought had the French not snatched victory from the jaws of defeats in Round One. They remain a quality team – the Gael Fickou try doesn’t change that – and as such, they are the bookies’ favourites to get it done at home. I’m going against the grain here and tipping the Irish to edge a humdinger. They have the forwards to dominate up front, they have the backs to cross the whitewash, they have a flyhalf in top form and they have belief. Ireland by three points.
England: 15 Mike Brown, 14 Jack Nowell, 13 Luther Burrell, 12 Billy Twelvetrees, 11 Jonny May, 10 Owen Farrell, 9 Danny Care, 8 Billy Vunipola, 7 Chris Robshaw (captain), 6 Tom Wood, 5 Courtney Lawes, 4 Joe Launchbury, 3 David Wilson, 2 Dylan Hartley, 1 Joe Marler.
Replacements: 16 Tom Youngs, 17 Mako Vunipola, 18 Henry Thomas, 19 Dave Attwood, 20 Ben Morgan, 21 Lee Dickson, 22 George Ford, 23 Alex Goode.
Ireland: 15 Rob Kearney, 14 Andrew Trimble, 13 Brian O'Driscoll, 12 Gordon D'Arcy, 11 Dave Kearney, 10 Jonathan Sexton, 9 Conor Murray, 8 Jamie Heaslip, 7 Chris Henry, 6 Peter O'Mahony, 5 Paul O'Connell (captain), 4 Devin Toner, 3 Mike Ross, 2 Rory Best, 1 Cian Healy.
Replacements: 16 Sean Cronin, 17 Jack McGrath, 18 Martin Moore, 19 Iain Henderson, 20 Jordi Murphy, 21 Isaac Boss, 22 Paddy Jackson, 23 Fergus McFadden.
Date: Saturday, February 22
Venue: Twickenham Stadium, London
Kick-off: 16.00 (16.00 GMT)
Expected weather: Partly cloudy, no rain. A high of 11°C and low of 3°C. Winds from the South at 29km/h.
Referee: Craig Joubert (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Romain Poite (France), Leighton Hodges (Wales)
TMO: Jim Yuille (Scotland)
By Quintin van Jaarsveld