Ireland Under-20s v England Under-20s
Arms Park (Thursday, 8.0, live on RTÉ News Now and RTÉ player)
Two unbeaten teams, both armed with a brace of bonus-point victories, whets the appetite for a potentially tournament-defining tussle in Cardiff. It would be churlish to ignore or dismiss other Tests in the next fortnight, but the winner here will take a significant stride towards a title that is Ireland's prerogative to defend.
In last season's abbreviated Six Nations, Ireland met England in the third round of fixtures, each country having won their opening two matches, a situation that pertains once again.
On that occasion Ireland won 39-21 at Franklin's Gardens, but there are few survivors on either side. Alexis Soroka swaps blindside flanker for secondrow while outhalf Tim Corkery came on for Jack Crowley in Northampton. England trio Luke Green, Tom Roebuck and Josh Gray are on the bench in Cardiff tonight having started last year's match.
England coach Alan Dickens makes four changes to the side that beat Scotland 31-12 in their last game. Fullback Charlie Atkinson, wing Tom Litchfield, secondrow Arthur Clark and number eight Nahum Merigan all make their first appearances in the tournament.
Dan Lancaster, a son of Leinster senior coach Stuart, continues his role as a second playmaker at inside centre, the highly regarded Leicester Tigers scrumhalf Jack van Poortvliet captains the side while mobile hooker Sam Riley scored last week's try of the round.
The English players have shown exceptional resilience in the tournament to date, overcoming a 19-3 interval deficit against France to win with a bonus point and winning against Scotland despite being down to 13 players at one point.
Ireland forwards coach Cullie Tucker has been impressed by several aspects of England's performances from cohesion to character. "What I've actually seen is a very, very good rugby team, a very cohesive pack of forwards and a team that's very comfortable playing direct or playing to width."
England’s lineout maul has been a potent try-scoring platform in both matches, they boast a good kicking game and there’s plenty of zip in the back three. Ireland’s maul defence improved hugely from the Scottish to Welsh matches, but it will need to go up another level again.
Ireland head coach Richie Murphy makes two changes to the starting team, with twin buttresses Temi Lasisi and Sam Illo returning at prop, central tenets in Ireland's scrum dominance against Scotland and one which Jack Boyle and Mark Donnelly continued against Wales. Bristol Bears' Chay Mullins makes his first appearance in the matchday squad.
Tucker said: “When you pare things back, this is our fifth game together, including the games we played before we came over. We’re on a fairly decent upward curve and we’d hope to continue that. Training over the last few days again has been really good. I think it’s putting us in a decent place for a performance again.
“I think our set-piece has been fairly strong overall. I think the scrum has provided a decent platform. I think we’re 22 from 25 lineouts, which is a decent return as well and there were a couple of maul scores. There are loads we need to be better at. So far, I think their application and their attitude towards us getting better has been very, very good.”
Nathan Doak’s man-of-the-match performance against Wales went way beyond his 20-point contribution. His game management, kicking, breaking and passing took a great deal of pressure off his halfback partner Tim Corkery, and the outhalf responded with a polished attacking display.
Connacht's Cathal Forde has arguably been Ireland's best back, continuously getting his team over the gain-line and providing space into which others can run. The main areas which Ireland will have to improve on appreciably from the last day are handling (17 errors) and passing (12 mistakes); they won't get away with slipshod handling against England.
Ireland's defence under Denis Leamy has been aggressively accurate and focused and for the most part well-judged in appreciating what's on at the breakdown, but they'll need to bring down the penalty count – 12 against Wales – for this match.
Alex Kendellen has led the team superbly and by example in every aspect of the game, ably supported by Harry Sheridan, Alexis Soroka and Oisín McCormack; the pack, though, have been excellent to a man. Ireland will need to produce a level of performance that outstrips everything they have managed in the tournament to date.
Do they have the capacity and quality to do so? Yes, but they will need to be foot perfect or close to it in Cardiff tonight.
IRELAND: J Osborne (Leinster); B Moxham (Ulster), S Jennings (Connacht), C Forde (Connacht), C Cosgrave (Leinster); T Corkery (Leinster), N Doak (Ulster); T Lasisi (Leinster), R Loughnane (Leinster), S Illo (Leinster); A Soroka (Leinster), H Sheridan (Ulster); D Byrne (Connacht), O McCormack (Connacht), A Kendellen (Munster, capt).
Replacements: E de Buitléar (Connacht), J Boyle (Leinster), M Donnelly (Munster), M Morrissey (Leinster), R Crothers (Ulster), J Kelleher (Munster), D Okeke (Munster), C McKee (Ulster), B Carson (Ulster), J Postlethwaite (Ulster), C Mullins (Bristol Bears).
ENGLAND: C Atkinson (Wasps); T Litchfield (Northampton Saints), J Bates (Bristol Bears), D Lancaster (Leeds Tykes), A Relton (Exeter Chiefs); F Smith (Worcester Warriors), J van Poortvliet (Leicester Tigers, capt); P Brantingham (Newcastle Falcons), S Riley (Harlequins), H Kindell-Beaton (Saracens); A Clark (Gloucester), A Groves (Bristol Bears); E Richards (Bath), J Clement (Gloucester), N Merigan (Bath).
Replacements: A Vanes (Leicester Tigers), T Haffar (London Irish), L Green (London Irish), F Thomas (Gloucester), O Stonham (Saracens), J Gray (Gloucester), T Carr-Smith (Bath), T Mathews (Hartpury), P Cokanasiga (London Irish), T Roebuck (Sale Sharks), O Bailey (Bath).