After England’s total demolition of Scotland on Saturday, Eddie Jones has some difficult selection decisions to make to finalise his 23 to take on Ireland in Dublin – with so much at stake.
Should England be victorious, not only will they seal back-to-back grand slams, achieving ‘greatness’ as claimed by Jones, but also set a new world record for consecutive tier-one victories.
Even so, a win in Dublin is an achievement for any team given Ireland’s strength in recent times; it is, after all, quite easy to forget that they have defeated all of Australia, South Africa and New Zealand under the guidance of Joe Schmidt.
Therefore, we pick a team to take on the Irish that we feel could win.
1) Joe Marler
50 caps up for England and looking better and better as an international player all the time. Whilst Marler has always been known for his work in the loose, his scrummaging has often been criticised. In this year’s Six Nations he has answered his critics and been one of the best looseheads in the tournament. It is a scary thought to think Jones can also call on the tremendous talents of Mako Vunipola off the bench as well.
2) Dylan Hartley (c)
Hartley has been much maligned this Six Nations – more for his performances as a player than as a captain – but his efforts against Scotland were his most impressive of the tournament and indeed for quite some time. Although Jamie George is perhaps now the better player, and yet to hit his peak, Hartley is clearly a leader that inspires the people around him. After all, he’s brought more success to his country than any other captain since a certain Martin Johnson. Will he be around in 2019? Who cares right now – it’s all about next week.
3) Dan Cole
Certainly not the force around the field as he has been previously, but Cole, like Marler, has improved in his consistency at scrum time under the guidance of Steve Borthwick and Neal Hatley, and is currently England’s best tighthead by far. Kyle Sinckler’s time will come, most likely in the summer against Argentina.
4) Joe Launchbury
A quiet giant both on and off the pitch; Launchbury gets through a hell of a lot of work in the second row – he was his county’s top tackler with 15 – and has bounced back from criticism of his performances earlier in the season to prove his worth to this team.
5) Courtney Lawes
As well as being one of England’s best ball carriers – he made 11, second only to Mike Brown’s 15 – Lawes was crucial at the lineout, taking 4 of them where his team were so destructive. Lawes is now a quality carrier and a far smarter player than he was when he first burst onto the international team.
6) Maro Itoje
‘Ubiquitous’ would be a pretty apt adjective to describe Saracens’ 22 year old prodigy, the match against Scotland saw Itoje’s best performance of the tournament so far. As well as providing a third lineout option (taking 3 in total), Itoje is showing his leadership skills and is crucial to everything good about this team. Without doubt a future captaincy option as he continues to grow as a player and a member of this side.
7) James Haskell
England’s best option at seven, streets ahead of both Tom Wood and Jack Clifford. His performances after his recovery from a serious toe injury are yet to match those of last year’s Six Nations and the Australian summer tour, but his work rate and his abrasiveness are much needed as England will look to boss Ireland up front.
8) Billy Vunipola
Nathan Hughes has received mixed reviews from pundits and spectators alike, but with the world class Vunipola recovering from his knee injury it would be silly to have the mighty Billy picking up splinters on the bench for the majority of the match. Hughes can be a handful at his best, but Vunipola on the top of his game is unstoppable.
9) Ben Youngs
Lacking the consistency of Conor Murray or Rhys Webb has meant Youngs is often seen as an after-thought in the Lions scrum half battle, but he put in one of his best performances in a white shirt against the Scots on Saturday. Next weekend provides Youngs with the perfect chance to show he deserves a spot on the plane to New Zealand and he will have to be accurate, precise and intelligent against a wily Irish team.
10) George Ford
Given the way Ford combined with Owen Farrell to carve Scotland apart, it’s possible to say that at his very best Ford is the greatest attacking fly-half his country has ever had. In a nation that often defines itself by its defensive mentality rather than its ability to create, Ford has been criticised for his perceived lack of physicality in the tackle. Yet given the way he recovered from a below par first half performance against Italy and tore a much-vaunted Scotland to shreds, he deserves many plaudits.
11) Anthony Watson
Elliot Daly was unfortunate to miss the majority of the match after being dangerously tackled early on in the match, but ‘finisher’ Watson made the most of his extended opportunity and reminded everyone why he was once the pick of England’s wingers. The way he combined with Jonathan Joseph was mesmerising at times and he has to start against Ireland.
12) Owen Farrell
Pundits keep placing Farrell as a contender for the fly-half spot for the Lions, but the Saracens man is doing a pretty special job for his country as a second five-eighth. A Lions combination of Ford and Farrell at 10 and 12 is now very much a possibility and the game against Ireland is the perfect platform for both players to push for those most coveted of places.
13) Jonathan Joseph
Dropped for the Italy match and truly outstanding against Scotland – it’s been a helter skelter few weeks for the Bath centre, but boy did JJ respond to his critics. Elliot Daly is a special player as well, but Joseph showing that kind of form means he needs to start. Guscottesque at times.
14) Jack Nowell
He’s not the fastest, he’s not the biggest, but is certainly one of the smartest. Nowell is part of an improving England brains trust and was popping up everywhere on the pitch against Scotland, like a mole on steroids. Jonny May in full flight is a lethal finisher, but Nowell is the better overall rugby player.
15) Mike Brown
More ball carries than any other player on the pitch and second only to Joseph in terms of metres made, Brown is still an integral part of this team – even if Jones may decide to look at other options this summer. A rock at the back and imperious under the high ball, Brown is still England’s number one fullback.
Jamie George, Mako Vunipola, Kyle Sinckler, Tom Wood, Nathan Hughes, Danny Care, Ben Te’o, Elliot Daly
On this week’s edition of The Oval Office Podcast, Lee Byrne tells us what’s gone wrong with Wales and how many dragons are likely to feature for the Lions.