Beating England perhaps unlikely, but Ireland might settle for emerging unscathed
It may be only a warm-up, but it’s still England v Ireland, and that’s a red-hot prospect
Ireland Rugby Captain’s Run at Twickenham Stadium on Friday. ‘We’ll be hoping to get out of the game free of injury and I know that Eddie [Jones] will be hoping the same thing with the English lads,’ said head coach Joe Schmidt. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
World Cup warm-up: England v Ireland
Kick-off: Saturday, 3pm. Venue: Twickenham. How to follow: The Irish Times liveblog will begin from 2.30pm. On TV: Live on Sky Sports Main Event and Sky Sports Action.
For many Irish supporters, there’s still no better away venue to win, and no better place to lose, than in this celebrated corner of South West London.
In the countries’ 50th meeting at Twickenham, a 50th Irish win over the auld enemy in 135 clashes overall certainly wouldn’t be without meaning, for it comes with the additional carrot of elevating Ireland above Wales to the top of World Rugby’s men’s rankings for the first time in history.
With Wales and New Zealand both having a rest week, a victory would see Ireland climb from third to first.
For fifth-placed England, a win could lift them to third.
A la Wales last week, earning the number one position would be a fantastic achievement, but might somehow feel less relevant coming into the World Cup.
Hence, avoiding injuries is arguably of more importance. Recall four years ago, when Ireland lost 21-13 in their final warm-up game here but emerged unscathed physically.
They were so protective of their players that Conor Murray was gone by the end of the first quarter, Johnny Sexton didn’t see it out and – finishing with three tight-heads – Tadhg Furlong played the last 10 in the back-row and Peter O’Mahony on the wing.
Yet there can’t be any holding back either, as Schmidt has admitted.
“Invariably, when you start trying to look after yourself, you get the timing slightly wrong, you’re a little bit hesitant, and that’s when you can pick up something you’d rather not have.”
“We’ll be hoping to get out of the game free of injury and I know that Eddie [Jones] will be hoping the same thing with the English lads.”
The last time Ireland were here, the Grand Slam coronation helped to provide some thaw for the truly Baltic conditions. This time around, the temperature at Twickenham could hit 30 degrees. A warm-up indeed.
This will at least continue the climatic conditions the Irish squad have been enjoying in the Algarve as a precursor to more of the same in Japan. Hence, there must be a chance that an Irish team featuring 12 players making their seasonal bows might be a little heavy-legged and not primed for a clash with England. Schmidt has admitted this is a risk, but one worth taking, given “August 24th is a distant second” to September 22nd and that pool opener against Scotland.
Furthermore, with Nigel Owens in charge, it could be a fast-paced game in the sweltering conditions, and with extended ball-in-play time.
England retain 10 of the XV which stormed the Aviva in February, and Ireland 11 of theirs, in an encounter whose ripple effects arguably still apply today. Speaking before the squad’s departure from the Algarve on Thursday, Irish captain Rory Best admitted Ireland were “bullied” that day by England.
“You look back in hindsight and maybe we got the preparation wrong when we were here at the end of January. It was very much about getting ourselves ready. I think the coaches were pushing us but as players we felt a bit tired.
“The way England came at us, we got caught a little bit short in our preparation which, again, is very unlike us.”
As to the view that Ireland peaked collectively and in several cases individually in 2018, Best said: “I think everyone is entitled to their opinion but we’re very confident in this group of players.”
Noting the competition for players and no “over-reliance on one or two players”, he added: “It’s not that long ago, 12 months ago, we were being talked about the best Irish team there ever was and one of the best teams in the world. A few other teams have come to the party now, the way Wales and England have been over the past 12 months. That’s fine.
“A lot of teams feel they’re in a good spot but you’ll not know until the final whistle on Saturday where exactly you are. Ultimately it is about making sure we’re right for September 22nd but, like I said, in the last breath that’s not just going to happen. You’ve got to make sure you start well and take your chance when it’s given to you.”
With Owen Farrell shifting back to 12 on his first start, and George Ford retained at 10, England look well equipped to bring their wings, Jonny May and Joe Cokanasiga, into play. They’re further equipped for a fast-paced game with the presence of two opensides, Tom Curry and Sam Underhill, amid all their ball-carrying and physicality.
This, admittedly, is the first-choice front-row, back-row and midfield of last February, along with Conor Murray, Jacob Stockdale and Rob Kearney at full-back, after the less than successful trialling of Robbie Henshaw there that day.
But, given it is a full debut for Byrne, and the aforementioned vagaries at play, an Irish win would be fairly remarkable.
No injuries, no suspensions, a good hit-out and a competitive Irish performance would do nicely.
ENGLAND: Elliot Daly; Joe Cokanasiga, Manu Tuilagi, Owen Farrell, Jonny May; George Ford, Ben Youngs; Joe Marler, Jamie George, Kyle Sinckler; Maro Itoje, George Kruis; Tom Curry, Sam Underhill, Billy Vunipola.
Replacements: Luke Cowan-Dickie, Mako Vunipola, Dan Cole, Courtney Lawes, Mark Wilson, Willi Heinz, Piers Francis, Jonathan Joseph.
IRELAND: Rob Kearney; Jordan Larmour, Garry Ringrose, Bundee Aki, Jacob Stockdale; Ross Byrne, Conor Murray; Cian Healy, Rory Best, Tadhg Furlong; Iain Henderson, Jean Kleyn; Peter O’Mahony, Josh van der Flier, CJ Stander.
Replacements: Seán Cronin, Jack McGrath, Andrew Porter, Devin Toner, Tadhg Beirne, Luke McGrath, Jack Carty, Andrew Conway.
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales).
Overall head-to-head: Played 134. England 77 wins. Ireland 49 wins. Draws 8.
Five-game form guide: England – 13-21 v Wales (a), 57-14 v Italy (h), 38-38 v Scotland (h), 33-19 v Wales (h), 6-13 v Wales (a). Ireland – 22-13 v Scotland (a), 26-16 v Italy (a), 26-14 v France (h), 7-25 v Wales (a), 29-10 v Italy (h).
Betting (Paddy Power): 3/10 England, 25/1 Draw, 13/5 Ireland. Handicap odds (Ireland +8pts) Evens England, 16/1 Draw, Evens Ireland.
Forecast: England to win.