Well this one needs no introduction. If you’re an Irish rugby supporter this is always the game that piques the interest most; the first game you check for when the fixture list comes out. Ozer McMahon previews this weekend’s huge clash between England and Ireland.
Beating England in front of committed home crowd in Dublin is one thing, beating them in their own back yard is an entirely different prospect. For generations Ireland showed up at the home of English rugby and were ruthlessly despatched and sent home with their tails between their legs. Keith Wood, one of the greatest players Ireland has ever produced, never sampled an Irish victory at Twickenham. Sometimes it can be hard to remember those times as Ireland made a habit of storming Twickenham and striding out victorious in the last decade. Ireland beat England eight times in twelve clashes between 2000 and 2011. There was no longer the fear factor attached to travelling to London, where they won three times in four visits between 2004 and 2010.
While that fear of facing up to the Red Rose may not have returned, Ireland have lost consecutive matches to an England team for the first time since the 2002 and 2003 tournaments. English rugby has not returned to the heady heights of the early noughties when they were about to become the first ever Northern Hemisphere world champions. They are however building slowly under Stuart Lancaster and are a team full of honest, hard grafters if entirely unspectacular players. At the outset of the tournament England were most punters favourites to win the championship, yet somehow having contrived to lose to France in round one, their backs are to the wall and by 6pm Saturday could be firmly out of the race for eventual glory.
Ireland travel to Twickenham buoyed by the fact they are two from two under their new management team, and with confidence enhanced in the knowledge they have a team that can juggle their approach to play their specific opponents. Schmidt deployed the perfect tactics last time out against Wales to derail the defending champions, and no doubt has spent the last two weeks mulling over how best to dismantle England’s game plan. A lot of talk from the Ireland camp over the last two weeks has been aimed at dampening expectations, suggesting Wales were way below par rather than Ireland having excelled. Of course Wales did flatter to deceive, but that was because Ireland never allowed them to perform.
The head coach has remained faithful to the team that delivered that emphatic victory, making no changes to the starting team. He has slightly tweaked his bench however, with Ian Henderson coming in for injury victim Dan Tuohy. Henderson has been preferred to the more experienced duo of Mike McCarthy and Donnacha Ryan. Somewhat surprisingly Ryan is not the only Munster forward to lose out this week with Tommy O’Donnell surrendering his spot on the bench. O’Donnell may feel hard done by as he has acquitted himself well on his brief cameo appearances thus far. His place goes to the uncapped Leinster rookie Jordi Murphy.
England are similarly consistent with their selection for this vital clash. Their sole change is injury enforced where Dan Cole misses out due to a trapped nerve, caused by a bulging disc in his back. Cole’s absence will be sorely missed. Not only does he anchor the scrum from where England establish their platform for attack, his work around the field and at the breakdown is hugely important to this team. Having missed only two of England’s games since Lancaster took over as head coach ahead of the 2011 championship, and that was because he was on Lions duty last summer, his experience is key in a side vastly ‘outcapped’ by the Irish (724 to 302). Hs replacement is David Wilson, who only has 47 minutes of game time under his belt since picking up a calf injury two months ago. The English game revolves around dominating upfront and without one of their pillars of strength in Cole, it will set them back.
The exchanges upfront will ultimately determine the outcome of this game. England have been on the front foot in both their games so far in the championship, with the exception of a manic opening ten-minute spell against France. This has allowed Billy Vunipola to look like a world beater. The barnstorming No.8 has the potential to reach the top, but this game will certainly test his ability to make the hard yards against the most miserly defence in the competition. Behind him Danny Care has pulled the strings expertly to date, having been third choice for England this time last year the Harlequins man looks like he is finally hitting the heights that have always been expected of him. He is a spikey operator and will keep the defenders around the fringes on their toes. Unfortunately for him, there doesn’t appear to be enough vibrancy outside him to maximise his attributes. Outside of Luther Burrell and Mike Brown, who have two tries apiece in this campaign, England’s backs are as unthreatening as they come.
With Ireland also missing their most elusive broken field runners, for a variety of reasons, it doesn’t take much to foresee a long and grinding war of attrition played between the single numbers and their replacements. England will be happy to keep the scoreboard ticking over with penalties. While Ireland may show more adventure with ball in hand, it is highly unlikely that they will be playing an altogether high-tempo wide game. Winning the breakdown, playing for territory by kicking to the corners and bombarding the English back three with high balls, especially the untested Jack Nowell and Jonny May, will probably be the Irish Modus Operandi Saturday evening. In the Kearney brothers and Andrew Trimble, the Irish back three contains some of the most willing and effective chasers and aerial operators in the competition. The Irish maul that was so effective against Wales, won’t dominate to the same extent against England but is a potent weapon all the same and it will remain a ‘go to’ option throughout.
With home advantage, and needing the victory to remain in the hunt for the championship, England were narrow favourites at the start of the week, and remain so despite losing such a key component of their team in Cole. With the team building momentum and an astute coach, not to mention the oceans of experience in the team, Ireland however could just about edge the victory and secure the triple crown.
Pundit Arena, Ozer McMahon.
Featured Image By Diliff (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons.