PREVIEW: England v Ireland

Fri, 16 Mar 2018 06:28

SIX NATIONS, ROUND FIVE: Ireland will hope they have saved their "best for last" as they bid to win just their third Grand Slam 70 years to the week since they completed their first by beating England at Twickenham on Saturday.

In 1948, a Jack Kyle-inspired team swept all before them in the old Five Nations, while in 2009 it was a side starring another all-time great in Brian O'Driscoll that achieved a Six Nations Grand Slam.  

Ireland arrive at Twickenham for the St Patrick's Day clash on an all-time national record of 11 successive Test wins - a sequence that started when they denied England a Grand Slam last year.

England will kick-off on the back of successive away defeats by Scotland and France, but they have yet to lose at home under coach Eddie Jones.

They've won their last 15 Tests at Twickenham and haven't suffered a Six Nations defeat at 'headquarters' since losing 12-19 to Wales in 2012 under Jones' predecessor, Stuart Lancaster.

But as coach Joe Schmidt said after Ireland wrapped up their third Six Nations title in five years under his guidance with a 28-8 win at home to Scotland last weekend: "History doesn't protect you from the future".

Schmidt had already had many great days with Ireland, including overseeing their first win in history against his native New Zealand.

But the former Leinster boss was in no doubt about the significance of a Grand Slam, saying: "I work with these young men who go out and do an incredibly difficult job and work very hard. It would give me incredible satisfaction to see that rewarded,"

Ireland captain Rory Best and fullback Rob Kearney are the only survivors from the 2009 team, with Best saying: "We're going to have to save the best for last, and that's what it's going to take to win."

But while Schmidt has made just the one change to his side, recalling lock Iain Henderson, Jones has responded to losing back-to-back matches for the first time as England coach by making seven personnel changes and an additional three positional switches.

The most eye-catching sees Owen Farrell move from his regular England position of inside centre to flyhalf, where he plays for European club champions Saracens, in place of the dropped George Ford.

Richard Wigglesworth, who plays alongside Farrell at London club Saracens, starts at scrumhalf instead of Danny Care following a 16-22 loss to France in Paris, while injuries to Nathan Hughes and Courtney Lawes have led to an enforced rejigging of the back-row forwards.

But whether the new half-back combination can revive England's often ponderous attack or the new loose-forward trio solve the team's longstanding breakdown problems remains to be seen.

Fit-again England captain Dylan Hartley returns at hooker after a calf injury kept him out of the France game.

Recent defeats have cast doubt on England's chances of winning next year's World Cup in Japan but Hartley said: "We are still a good team. Two losses don’t mean we are not a good team,"

The often slim difference between success and failure was summed up by the astounding 41-phase move that led to the last-ditch Jonathan Sexton drop-goal saw Ireland secure a come-from-behind win over France in their tournament opener - a kick without which Ireland's Grand Slam dreams would have been dashed first-up.

Flyhalf Sexton is not the only dangerman among Ireland's backs, with wing Jacob Stockdale having already scored six tries this Championship and so equalled the record for the most in a single Six Nations era-season.

Amid everything else, Jones found himself apologising for referring to Ireland as "scummy" after a video of a talk he gave to corporate sponsors last year re-emerged.

"Ireland are preparing for a Grand Slam, they don't need any extra motivation," said Jones when asked about the possible impact of his crude comments, while Schmidt said they had not disturbed the "bubble" that surrounds his squad.

Players to watch:

For England: Returning to the number 10 jersey, Owen Farrell is always a lethal weapon for his side. He is a player with vision and his excellent goal-kicking adds extra value to his persona as a player. In the pack, Maro Itoje - who have been flat in recent games - could use this game to rejuvenate his performance.  

For Ireland:  Conor Murray is always one to keep a close eye on. The scrumhalf could be labelled as one of the best in Europe with his decisive box kick and ability to dictate the game.  Try-scoring machine Jacob Stockdale has been superb form lately. In the forwards, CJ Stander always delivers a brute force performance.

Head to head: The most obvious battle is at flyhalf. England's Owen Farrell takes on Ireland's Jonathan Sexton. Both master class acts in their positions. Up front, the battle between captains Dylan Hartley and Rory Best at hooker is also a facet of the match will be vital. While the loose trio battle - Sam Simmonds, James Haskell, and Chris Robshaw against  CJ Stander, Dan Leavy and Peter O’Mahony will be a fascinating challenge.     

Recent results:

2017: Ireland won 13-9, Aviva Stadium
2016: England won 21-10, London
2015: England won 21-13, London
2015: Ireland won 19-9, Dublin
2014: England won 13-10, London
2013: England won 12-6, Dublin
2012: England won 30-9, London
2011: England won 20-9, Dublin
2011: Ireland won 24-8, Dublin
2010: Ireland won 20-16, London
2009: Ireland won 14-13, Dublin

Prediction: A fortnight ago the rugby world would have expected an English victory, but then Scotland and France happened, while Ireland have been striving. The only thing counting in England's favour right now is the Twickenham factor, while for Ireland wouldn't it just be fitting to celebrate a Grand Slam victory on St Patrick's Day? It is going to close encounter but, Ireland will win this by three.


England: 15 Anthony Watson, 14 Jonny May, 13 Jonathan Joseph, 12 Ben Te'o, 11 Elliot Daly, 10 Owen Farrell, 9 Richard Wigglesworth, 8 Sam Simmonds, 7 James Haskell, 6 Chris Robshaw, 5 George Kruis, 4 Maro Itoje, 3 Kyle Sinckler, 2 Dylan Hartley (captain), 1 Mako Vunipola.
Replacements: 16 Jamie George, 17 Joe Marler, 18 Dan Cole, 19 Joe Launchbury, 20 Don Armand, 21 Danny Care, 22 George Ford, 23 Mike Brown.

Ireland: 15 Rob Kearney, 14 Keith Earls, 13 Garry Ringrose, 12 Bundee Aki, 11 Jacob Stockdale, 10 Johnny Sexton, 9 Conor Murray, 8 Christiaan Stander, 7 Dan Leavy, 6 Peter O’Mahony, 5 Iain Henderson, 4 James Ryan, 3 Tadhg Furlong, 2 Rory Best (captain), 1 Cian Healy.
Replacements: 16 Sean Cronin, 17 Jack McGrath, 18 Andrew Porter, 19 Devin Toner, 20 Jordi Murphy, 21 Kieran Marmion, 22 Joey Carbery, 23 Jordan Larmour.

Date: Saturday, March 17
Venue: Twickenham, London
Kick-off: 14.45 (14.45 GMT)
Expected weather conditions: Rain and snow are expected in London. A high of 1°C and a low of -1°C.  
Referee: Angus Gardner (Australia)
Assistant Referees: Jaco Peyper (South Africa), Nigel Owens (Wales)
TMO: Ben Skeen (New Zealand)

Agence France-Presse & @rugby365com

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Team P W D L Pts
Ireland 5 5 0 0 26
Wales 5 3 0 2 15
Scotland 5 3 0 2 13
France 5 2 0 3 11
England 5 2 0 3 10
Italy 5 0 0 5 1