England look to hold all the cards for final day showdown with Ireland

Eddie Jones’s side comes to Dublin looking to make it five wins in a row against Ireland

CJ Stander carries the ball during the Ireland captain’s run at the Aviva Stadium on Friday ahead of the Six Nations game  against England. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

CJ Stander carries the ball during the Ireland captain’s run at the Aviva Stadium on Friday ahead of the Six Nations game against England. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

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Ireland v England, Aviva Stadium, Saturday, 4.45 – Live on Virgin Media 1, ITV 1 or follow on The Irish Times liveblog from 4.15

In keeping with these abnormal times this latest last-day Anglo-Irish shoot-out is actually lacking a little cordite, or at any rate something more tangible to play for. Pride yes, some place money and a top half finish too, but no Slam, title or Crown on the line for either side, which goes against precedent.

In the Six Nations era Ireland-England games have been reserved for the final weekend on seven occasions and only twice, in 2008 and 2012, have they been dead rubbers in terms of the title – Wales winning the Grand Slam each time.

Ireland have denied England Grand Slams (if not the title) here in 2001, 2011 and 2017, while England’s 2003 vintage sealed a Slam here en route to winning the World Cup and Ireland completed a Triple Crown at Twickenham in 2006 and a Grand Slam there three years ago. Good times.

But this time, a bit like the attendance (which would have earned the IRFU about €4 million and the economy circa €12-13 million) there’s nada. That said, securing a top half finish would achieve respectability and with it, perhaps, ease the criticism toward the receptive head coaches. This seems truer for Andy Farrell, even though this is his second Six Nations, than Eddie Jones, presiding over his sixth.

Ireland arrive at the final weekend buoyed by successive wins but with six changes in personnel – half of them forced– and three positional, the net effect being that only Hugo Keenan has worn the same jersey in five games.

England, by contrast, have just one enforced change. While Henry Slade is an influential figure both offensively and defensively, and Elliot Daly hasn’t played at outside centre in Test rugby for five years, he has happy memories against Ireland (five wins and five tries in seven matches).

Admittedly, Ireland are restoring some proven and hungry Test match players, as well as physique, in Bundee Aki, Jacob Stockdale, Conor Murray, David Kilcoyne, Josh van der Flier and Jack Conan, all of whom will have their own points to prove.

Yet Will Connors’s chop tackling looked ideal for countering Billy Vunipola and England’s heavyweight carriers and the backrow looks a little less balanced, not least with Tadhg Beirne’s carrying and breakdown work likely to be reduced by reverting to the secondrow. Still, Van der Flier had one of his best games in Cardiff, opportunity knocks big time for Conan, making his first start for 18 months, and we know that, as much as he’s ever done, CJ Stander will leave everything of himself in his Irish finale.

England’s Elliot Daly beats Jacob Stockdale of Ireland to the ball to score his team’s second try during the 2020 Guinness Six Nations match at Twickenham. Photograph: Warren Little/Getty Images
England’s Elliot Daly beats Jacob Stockdale of Ireland to the ball to score his team’s second try during the 2020 Guinness Six Nations match at Twickenham. Photograph: Warren Little/Getty Images

Ireland have had the best defensive lineout in the tournament, albeit without their leading man James Ryan, while England have the best lineout (93 per cent) and scrum (95 per cent) success rate, and outstanding though Rob Herring’s darts have been, Luke Cowan-Dickie has landed all 22 of his throws.

Paul O’Connell’s influence has been profound on both the set-piece and on the breakdown, where Ireland’s work has been excellent, although again Ryan’s voracious accuracy will be missed.

On many other counts there doesn’t seem much between the sides. Each has scored 10 tries, with Ireland conceding eight to England’s nine, and the defensive glitches have been more down to individual than system errors.

Yet England should be warmer than three-point favourites.

Not being wise after the event, Scotland were over-priced going to an empty Twickenham in round one, not least because Jones’s go-to Saracens players were so rusty. But round five was always likely to find them up to speed.

Their performance against France last week reinforced that view. They had responded to the officials’ double whammy in Cardiff with some high-tempo attacking rugby before losing their discipline, and against France they again went up a gear or two in a manner Ireland have yet to demonstrate.

Rome apart, Ireland’s attack has been more of a grinding affair. Johnny Sexton has voiced his frustration over their failure to transition from defence into attack with all those hard-earned turnovers, stolen lineouts, opposition errors or penalty advantages.

Farrell has admitted that an underlying flaw has been a lack of calmness, yet for all the work that is apparently being done on the training ground, it’s hard to see this suddenly clicking.

Most of all, since Ireland sealed the Slam on St Patrick’s Day four years ago at Twickenham, England have beaten them four times in a row (compounded by Saracens beating Leinster twice). One of the common themes has been conceding early tries, not helpful given Ireland aren’t an especially good catch-up side and England are strong frontrunners.

The other has been the manner England have dominated the gainline on both sides of the ball, and even when struggling to contain France’s effervescent tempo, offloading and width last week in the first half, the men in white still seemed to be having the better of the collisions. They also have dual playmakers, a more varied kicking game and probably more athleticism.

An Irish win is by no means beyond the bounds, but it would probably require an exceptional and disciplined defensive performance while taking pretty much every opportunity.

Home advantage being diluted, it would be some achievement for such a remodeled side to end Ireland’s four-game losing streak in this fixture. Based on those games and recent evidence, the suspicion lurks England retain the artillery to win the gainline and the firepower to make that count.

IRELAND: H Keenan (Leinster); K Earls (Munster), R Henshaw (Leinster), B Aki (Connacht), J Stockdale (Ulster); J Sexton (Leinster, capt), C Murray (Munster); D Kilcoyne (Munster), R Herring (Ulster), T Furlong (Leinster); I Henderson (Ulster), T Beirne (Munster); CJ Stander (Munster), J Van Der Flier (Leinster), J Conan (Leinster).

Replacements: R Kelleher (Leinster), C Healy (Leinster), A Porter (Leinster), R Baird (Leinster), P O’Mahony (Munster), J Gibson-Park (Leinster), B Burns (Ulster), J Larmour (Leinster).

ENGLAND: M Malins (Bristol); A Watson (Bath), E Daly (Saracens), O Farrell (Saracens, capt), J May (Gloucester); G Ford (Leicester), B Youngs (Leicester); M Vunipola (Saracens), L Cowan-Dickie (Exeter), K Sinckler (Bristol); M Itoje (Saracens), C Ewels (Bath); M Wilson (Newcastle), T Curry (Sale Sharks), B Vunipola (Saracens).

Replacements: J George (Saracens), E Genge (Leicester), W Stuart (Bath), J Hill (Exeter), B Earl (Bristol), D Robson (Wasps), O Lawrence (Worcester), J Marchant (Harlequins).

Referee: Mathieu Raynal (France).

Forecast: England to win.

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