Ireland v England: Crunch time for Six Nations' big two

Gerry Thornley says visitors will be more creative but home advantage favours Ireland

On your marks: Paul O’Connell will captain Ireland in their decisive tie against England in the Six Nations. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

On your marks: Paul O’Connell will captain Ireland in their decisive tie against England in the Six Nations. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

 

Once again the stakes are huge. Once again the meeting of last year’s top two finds both countries unbeaten. So come the full-time whistle the winners will lead the 2015 Six Nations in splendid isolation. Bar meeting on the final weekend in a Grand Slam shoot-out, the latest Ireland-England instalment could hardly be grander.

Sunday kickoffs can be soporific affairs, but this shouldn’t lack for atmosphere, and in another game of minuscule margins, the degree to which the Irish fans turn up and back the home side could be significant.

Ditto the weather, with the forecast somewhat better than it had been for much of the week, albeit still with breezy conditions and the risk of showers beforehand and during. That may make for another taut, tight, low-scoring game.

Both teams kicked out of hand more than anyone else in last season’s championship, yet their clash at Twickenham, when England won by 13-10, was a compelling affair, a game of high quality given the high pressure.

A year on, the ingredients are there for more of the same. This pair look like the best two teams in the competition, and the winners will also stand third in the world rankings behind New Zealand and South Africa.

Ireland would be the more popular winners, as it would open the door for the winners of today’s France-Wales game, especially the latter as they host Ireland in a fortnight’s time, whereas England would be superbly placed with home games against Scotland and France.

Second Captains

Both teams were unveiled along anticipated lines yesterday, with Jordi Murphy replacing Jamie Heaslip, and Tommy O’Donnell being promoted to the bench, where Eoin Reddan also comes in for Isaac Boss. Joe Schmidt revealed that one of the factors in retaining Felix Jones instead of Luke Fitzgerald was to avoid the possibility of having three left-footers in the back three were Fitzgerald obliged to replace Simon Zebo.

Aerial prowess

Stuart LancasterJack NowellJonny MayAlex Goode

England have won the last four meetings and have been knocking on the door for the last three seasons, winning four from five to finish runners-up each time. They have shown the best form to date, specifically in the composed manner they recovered from deficits of 10-0 and 16-8 at half-time on opening night in Cardiff.

Whereas England have scored eight tries, Ireland have been less potent, scoring just two and not yet creating a huge amount. In the last four meetings they have managed one try, and their highest tally was ten points. England’s discipline is excellent, and thus the main concern is where Ireland’s points will come from.

There’s also a real concern about the Irish scrum, given the way it has gone against England and when the provinces have faced Premiership opposition this season, most notably when Joe Marler gave Ross a torrid time. By contrast, Cian Healy’s strong history is likely to be less of a factor given he is on the bench.

Weaknesses

Craig Joubert

Ireland have been hugely reliant on heroic and wonderfully integrated defending in their big autumnal wins and opening two victories in the Six Nations. By contrast, England have been fairly potent to date, with Ford’s quicker hands and passing on the gain line, along with Jonathan Joseph’s footwork, giving them a new dimension.

What’s more, if their tight five and backrow rumblers, especially Billy Vunipola, get on the front foot, then Ben Youngs will be in his element. Were he and Ford put under pressure though, it could be an altogether different matter. England might not find themselves on the front foot as readily as they did against the Welsh and Italian tight fives.

Heaslip is a very significant loss, not least as he rarely makes a mistake in 80 minutes and is a proven, big-game player, while the English backrow has been immense to date.

It wasn’t a million miles away from a draw last year, and it’s hard to believe it will be any more than a two or three-point game. Form points to England, but then Ireland have shown a resilience and mental strength in winning nine from nine since that Twickenham defeat.

There’s also home advantage, the sense that their breakdown work and creativity will go up a notch and the Schmidt factor. With anticipated improvement from Sean O’Brien and Jonny Sexton, Ireland may, just possibly, edge it.

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