It's the Six Nations, it's England, it's showdown time
Ireland v England: The Aviva hasn’t been the fortress the Irish team or fans would have liked ever since the botched ticket pricing for the November 2010 opening, and soporific Sunday kick-offs still go against the grain. But this is England, this is the Six Nations and the new joint should be rocking à la the old Lansdowne Road come kick-off.
The 24-8 dismantling of England’s Grand Slam ambitions two years ago added to the wins of ’05 in the old Lansdowne and the ’07 and ’09 wins in Croke Park, mean Ireland are looking to extend a proud home record against the Red Rose.
With their proximity to the pitch, and more inclined to be seated in advance when England come calling, the crowd can be a factor, and with both sides having backed up winning autumnal finales with victories last weekend, it’s set up nicely.
An unchanged side is always a barometer of good health. That the hugely influential Gordon D’Arcy is fit to resume his partnership with Brian O’Driscoll for a 50th time in Test rugby alone is a huge boon, not least for O’Driscoll, and it would have been tough to change a winning team.
Rolls into town
The Chariot again rolls into town, but not with what Will Carling yesterday described as the bizarre over-confidence of two years ago. This rebuilt, younger English side reflects the respectful nature of coach Stuart Lancaster.
Aside from bringing in James Haskell and shifting Tom Wood across to number eight in the absence of the injured Ben Morgan, Lancaster has also left well enough alone, with Thomas Waldrom called up to the bench and Manu Tuilagi having to be content with a place on the bench. Admittedly, if ever a player was designed for “impact” it is the Samoan-born wrecking ball.
Unsurprisingly, Brad Barritt is retained as their defensive linchpin at outside centre, perhaps as a mark of respect to Brian O’Driscoll after his exploits last week. Tuilagi can become isolated defensively, à la Jonathan Davies last week, and while England also close the space well, Barritt and co are cuter in reading attacks.
Opening up this English team may thus require patience and ingenuity. The ball will be precious and when the time comes, as it invariably will, defenders need to keep turning up.
The scrum carnage of last year being a vivid memory, and Irish sore point, England will undoubtedly test the waters by going after the first few put-ins, and if they gain an upper hand it will have a seismic effect.
Maybe not on the scale of last year but, because of last year, it will still be hugely significant.
Then again, recall the tremor caused by Ireland’s huge first scrum two years ago, although most referees nowadays prefer an anti-climactic indirect penalty at the first scrum.
For sure, Ireland will not want anything to befall Mike Ross, but Cian Healy has historically coped admirably with another would-be Lion, Dan Cole.
Indeed, the many Lions candidatures at stake may add an extra frisson to proceedings, not that it was required.
An unpleasant forecast of rain or sleet, along with a stiff breeze, heightens the importance of accuracy at the set-piece. Once more there is an unpredictable French refereeing factor, if not on the scale of Romain Poite.
Jerome Garces, in only his second Six Nations game, is particularly hot at the breakdown on players not releasing the ball or the tackler not rolling away.
Like most French referees, he doesn’t tend to have many re-sets, preferring penalties.
“The breakdown,” replied Kidney when asked the key to tomorrow’s game, adding: “a fair competition at the breakdown and being allowed to compete for it. I think that will be a big thing.”
The state of the pitch is a concern too, though the kickers have reported “a good head of grass”, which may make it less of an issue for a rugby match.
Owen Farrell’s place-kicking is extraordinary, and he is maturing rapidly, but for all their heavyweight power and carrying, and rapid quick recycling, England have less subtlety and variety to their attacking game.
Power up front
There are caveats, beyond England’s power up front, such as, perhaps, the question mark over Ireland’s ability to last 80 minutes after the trying last half-hour against Wales, even if that may have a flip side.
“It made us dig deep into our tank of confidence in ourselves, really tested our mentality when our backs were against the wall, so hopefully it will stand to us this weekend,” ventured Jamie Heaslip yesterday.
Whereas England’s starting line-up has 242 caps, Ireland’s has 532, and so England’s youthful vigour and impact off the bench is countered by Ireland’s experience and it could be that at key moments, key men such as Rory Best, Heaslip, Jonny Sexton and O’Driscoll will do the right thing at the right time.
The bookies can’t call it, and while there have been occasional freaks such as last season or the Croke Park 30-point win, this has all the makings of another tight one.
Aviva teams: How they line out
15 Rob Kearney (Leinster)
14 Craig Gilroy (Ulster)
13 Brian O’Driscoll (Leinster)
12 Gordon D’Arcy (Leinster)
11 Simon Zebo (Munster)
10 Jonathan Sexton (Leinster)
9 Conor Murray (Munster)
1 Cian Healy (Leinster)
2 Rory Best (Ulster)
3 Mike Ross (Leinster)
4 Mike McCarthy (Connacht)
5 Donnacha Ryan (Munster)
6 Peter O’Mahony (Munster)
7 Seán O’Brien (Leinster)
8 Jamie Heaslip (Leinster,capt)
Replacements: S Cronin (Leinster), D Kilcoyne (Munster), D Fitzpatrick (Ulster), D O’Callaghan (Munster), C Henry (Ulster), E Reddan (Leinster), R O’Gara (Munster), K Earls (Munster).
15 Alex Goode (Saracens)
14Chris Ashton (Saracens)
13 Brad Barritt (Saracens)
12 Billy Twelvetrees (Gloucester)
11 Mike Brown (Harlequins)
10 Owen Farrell (Saracens)
9 Ben Youngs (Leicester)
1 Joe Marler (Harlequins)
2 Tom Youngs (Leicester)
3 Dan Cole (Leicester)
4 Joe Launchbury (Wasps)
5 Geoff Parling (Leicester)
6 James Haskell (Wasps)
7 Chris Robshaw (Harlequins)
8 Tom Wood (Northampton)
Replacements: D Hartley (Northampton), D Wilson (Bath), M Vunipola (Saracens), C Lawes (Northampton), T Waldrom (Leicester), D Care (Harlequins), T Flood (Leicester), M Tuilagi (Leicester).
Referee: J Garces (Fra)
Asst referees: N Owens (Wal), P Gauzere (Fra).
Aviva Stadium, tomorrow, 3pm On TV: RTÉ 2, BBC 1