England v Ireland preview: Ireland’s revival to face its sternest test

If Ireland are to win at Twickenham then most likely it will be a white knuckle ride

England v Ireland, Twickenham, Sunday 3pm.

On TV: Live on Virgin Media TV and ITV.

This should be instructive. Over the course of the pivotal third round we'll discover the extent of the French renaissance and Ireland's revival, and much else besides. By the close of business on Sunday the Six Nations could be anything from a two-horse race towards a Grand Slam shootout to a four-way tussle for the title.

Nowhere will be more revealing than this latest Anglo-Irish joust at Twickenham, England’s first home game of the tournament and Ireland’s first away. There is the immediate prize of just a 12th Irish Triple Crown, which would be a swift antidote to the disappointing events of 2019, as well as being a significant step on the road to a fifth title in a dozen years.


Devin Toner has replaced Iain Henderson, whose wife Suzanne gave birth to their second child, a baby boy, earlier this week, and the change ought to be relatively seamless. Ultan Dillane, who made an eye-catching debut against England here four years ago, should also be straining at the leash for his first test in a year.

An English side without the Vunipola wrecking balls looks less intimidating. Then again Manu Tuilagi, five wins from five against Ireland, is back in one of four changes. Jonathan Joseph shifts from centre to wing, for his first start there in 50 tests, while Elliot Daly reverts to fullback, where his left-footed kicking game will come more into play.

Ben Youngs and Joe Marler return, with Courtney Lawes' big-tackling game at blindside a statement of intent along with a 6-2 split on the bench again as Eddie Jones names five locks in his 23. England are going to bring plenty of oomph.

Allowing for Ireland's knowledge of Twickenham, they should still benefit from the insider knowledge of Andy Farrell and Mike Catt. Although they have scars from the last two meetings, they shouldn't have any fears. Remarkably, given England have lost only seven home matches since the Six Nations came into being, Ireland have won on four of their last eight championship visits here. They also lead the overall head-to-head in that time by 11-9, in sharp contrast to England's 14 wins in the last 20 years of the Five Nations.

Johnny Sexton made his Six Nations debut in the win here a decade ago, and after four defeats was back on the winning side two years ago. He knows full well the challenges that await his side.

“There’s a lot of them,” he said, declining to name just one. “Obviously when they get those purple patches, the noise in the stadium, the way their players grow when that happens at times it will feel like it’s just wave after wave coming at you. They’re big men, big ball carriers. Yeah, that’s what we’re preparing for really, how we can stop that and then be able to thrust it back at them.”

Aside from Tuilagi and England's other heavy hitters, the memory of Sam Underhill and Tom Curry causing the All Blacks untold havoc hasn't faded. Well though Peter O'Mahony, CJ Stander and Josh van der Flier performed against Wales, this will be another task altogether.

The ripple effect of the initial battle on the gain line and at the breakdown will be felt out wide. If Tuilagi and co can make inroads, or condense the Irish defence, they have the dual playmakers in George Ford and Owen Farrell to go out the back and use their pace out wide to damage Ireland on the edges, as well as the kicking game to find grass.

Then again, Ireland's use of the blindside and work-rate off the ball - notably the back three of Jacob Stockdale, Jordan Larmour and Andrew Conway - expanded their game strikingly against Wales. With the forecast morning rain to relent, it has the ingredients for a cracking encounter.

Blistering opening salvos have been a notable feature of this English team’s high points. However, when the early moments went with South Africa in the World Cup final and France in the Six Nations first round, they showed England could be shut down. The start will also either exacerbate or lessen the Twickenham factor.

A common denominator of Ireland’s last four wins at this venue was how opportunistically they took their chances, and they’ll assuredly have to do so again.

As an aside, a 50th victory over the auld enemy would elevate Ireland above England to third in the world rankings, although a defeat, coupled with a Welsh win, could see them drop to fifth should either margin be in excess of 15 points.

There’s also the Jaco Peyper factor. He allowed France and New Zealand all manner of skullduggery on the last two occasions he refereed Irish games in 2016. All in all, if Ireland are to win then most likely it will be a white knuckle ride. The 24-15 victory to clinch the Grand Slam two years ago was their second biggest winning margin ever at Twickenham. Of Ireland’s 14 wins here, a dozen were by six points or less, and six were by a solitary point.

On the expectation that England’s return to the comforts of home for the first time since last September will spark their best performance since that World Cup semi-final, they may be just too powerful. But if Ireland can emerge with their heads held high, and with a bonus point, it could be a step toward a bigger prize.

England: E Daly (Saracens); J May (Leicester), M Tuilagi (Leicester), O Farrell (Saracens, capt), J Joseph (Bath); G Ford (Leicester), B Youngs (Leicester); J Marler (Harlequins), J George (Saracens), K Sinckler (Harlequins), M Itoje (Saracens), G Kruis (Saracens), C Lawes (Northampton), S Underhill (Bath), T Curry (Sale). Replacements: L Cowan-Dickie (Exeter), E Genge (Leicester), W Stuart (Bath), J Launchbury (Wasps), C Ewels (Bath), B Earl (Saracens), W Heinz (Gloucester), H Slade (Exeter).

Ireland: J Larmour (Leinster); A Conway (Munster), R Henshaw (Leinster), B Aki (Connacht), J Stockdale (Ulster); J Sexton (Leinster, capt), C Murray (Munster); C Healy (Leinster), R Herring (Ulster), T Furlong (Leinster), D Toner (Leinster), J Ryan (Leinster), P O'Mahony (Munster), J van der Flier (Leinster), CJ Stander (Munster). Replacements: R Kelleher (Leinster), D Kilcoyne (Munster), A Porter (Leinster), U Dillane (Connacht), C Doris (Leinster), J Cooney (Ulster), R Byrne (Leinster), K Earls (Munster).

Referee: Jaco Peyper (South Africa).

Assistant referees: Romain Poite and Alexandre Ruiz (both France).

TMO: Marius Jonker (South Africa)

Overall head-to-head: Played 135, England 78 wins, Ireland 49 wins, 8 draws.

Last five meetings: (2019) England 57 Ireland 15. Ireland 15 England 24. (2018) England 15 Ireland 24. (2017) Ireland 13 England 9. (2016) England 21 Ireland 10.

Betting: 4/11 England, 18/1 Draw, 12/5 Ireland. Handicap odds (Ireland +7pts) Evens England, 16/1 Draw, Evens Ireland.

Forecast: England to win.

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times