Six Nations: England v Ireland, Twickenham, kick-off on Saturday at 4.45pm (live on RTE 2 and ITV)
So this it then, the big one. And not just because it’s the next one. Paris may or may not still prove to be the title decider, but this is England at Twickenham in the Six Nations and this one is even more than a title eliminator.
Whenever an Irish team pitches up in England’s HQ in the south west of London you always have the feeling that the Irish rugby team is playing for more than a nation. It’s for the huge English-based diaspora as well. If Ireland win they can walk that little bit taller, and the more the away fans are heard the better Ireland will be performing.
But England-Ireland games in recent times have had a way of transcending even the auld rivalry. This is a very good Irish team, and potentially a very special one, but to that end beating England in Twickenham would fuel them with the belief that they really are on an the right trajectory.
In Ireland's three games to date, Andy Farrell said he has learned: "We're a good side."
Then he added: “We’re a good side that’s hopefully getting better. We’re in a position again to still be in with a shout of winning the competition, which is great. To stay in that hunt until the final week you’ve got to win big games and this is a big game.”
That about sums it up. For Ireland to at least partially erase the defeat in Paris, to maintain their title challenge and to travel to New Zealand for a daunting five match tour and three-test series against a vengeful All Blacks, a win here would be huge. Whereas a defeat could be damaging.
What’s more, while not looking like the near certainty of the Grand Slam coronation in 2018, Ireland just look in a better place right now than a transitional England. Admittedly another early English try in this fixture and all bets are off. Ala Paris, then the Twickenham factor will have lift-off. It’s been a fortress for England over the last decade and a graveyard for Ireland on their last three visits.
Heretofore in this Six Nations, England have looked like a good team trying to break out, albeit almost all their inspiration appears to have come from the electric Marcus Smith. If Ireland contain him it's hard to see where England go.
They may be bubbling, and Peter O’Mahony is probably being very wise when forecasting England are due their biggest performance of this year’s Championship. Yet for all the talk of a new England it sounds like Jones is winding them up for the kind of old England performance which had done for Ireland in recent time.
“We are a very physical team,” he said. “And they (Ireland) haven’t played against a side as physical as us for a long time. If you look at their record, they haven’t played against South Africa since 2017. We played against South Africa last year and did well in those physical stakes, so we intend to really take it to them.”
This will be a test of Ireland's coaching and training standards as well, but on that count there oughtn't be too many concerns
There’s no avoiding the physical battle. First and foremost a rugby match is a fight. But even without Andrew Porter and Ronan Kelleher this Irish team looks equipped for that. Cian Healy will be wound up for a big 50 minutes and with his strength and pace Dan Sheehan looks made for days like this, while this could be Caelan Doris’ day.
Mathieu Raynal is a good scrummaging referee, but presuming Ireland draw parity there, their lineout should function better than it did in Paris. Unusually, Ireland also suffered a little on their own ruck ball against both France and Italy, where they conceded five penalties, while seven penalties and a dozen of England's points against Wales emanated from their work in defence at the breakdown.
But that should be a warning to this Irish team and it will be a surprise if Paul O’Connell and the players don’t rectify those issues. Ultimately then, if England don’t send Twickers into raucous Sweet Chariot early on with a try or a run of scrum or breakdown penalties, Ireland should be in a good place.
Their intricate and layered attacking game is more developed. Ireland's forwards have a better skill set and with Johnny Sexton back to pull the strings, they look to have more variety, line breaks and more tries in them.
A futile win over Italy in between two fallow weeks does perhaps leave them a little undercooked. Most of this team have had only a facile run-out in the last three weeks and some haven’t played for four weeks. Hence this will be a test of Ireland’s coaching and training standards as well, but on that count there oughtn’t be too many concerns. Think of how Ireland hit the ground running last November or last month against Wales.
Provided Ireland don’t suffer unduly in the early stages, they can win this one.
ENGLAND: Freddie Steward; Max Malins, Joe Marchant, Henry Slade, Jack Nowell; Marcus Smith, Harry Randall; Ellis Genge, Jamie George, Kyle Sinckler; Maro Itoje, Charlie Ewels; Courtney Lawes (capt), Tom Curry, Sam Simmonds.
Replacements: Jamie Blamire, Joe Marler, Will Stuart, Joe Launchbury, Alex Dombrandt, Ben Youngs, George Ford, Elliot Daly.
IRELAND: Hugo Keenan; Andrew Conway, Garry Ringrose, Bundee Aki, James Lowe; Johnny Sexton (capt), Jamison Gibson-Park; Cian Healy, Dan Sheehan, Tadhg Furlong; Tadhg Beirne, James Ryan; Peter O'Mahony, Josh van der Flier, Caelan Doris.
Replacements: Rob Herring, Dave Kilcoyne, Finlay Bealham, Iain Henderson, Jack Conan, Conor Murray, Joey Carbery, Robbie Henshaw.
Referee: Mathieu Raynal (FFR)
Overall head-to-head: Played 138. England 80 wins. Five Draws. 50 Ireland wins.
Betting (Paddy Power): 11/10 England, 20/1 Draw, 4/5 Ireland. Handicap odds (Ireland + 1 pt) England Evens, 22/1 Draw, Evens Ireland.
Forecast: Ireland to win.