After a two week hiatus, the RBS 6 Nations is back. Two weeks where player recovery is paramount, injury assessment and alternative replacements are mulled over and slept on and then mulled over again. This weekend looks like the pivotal round of the championship so far as conceivably the race for top honors will be a two horse race come Saturday evening. Hawkeye Sidekick previews the England and Ireland match and wonders whether England can take advantage of Ireland’s massive injury list.
Eddie Jones was abrasive at best during his press conference today. The English media pack continually probing on whether England will look to target Ireland fly-half Sexton. The response garnered was all you needed to know. England will look to run down the number ten’s channel throughout, not because Sexton is defensively weak, it is because there is a rookie number seven in the Ireland ranks.
Josh van der Flier’s emergence with Leinster this season has heralded a first international cap in the cauldron of Twickenham. Joe Schmidt has wielded the axe by dropping Tommy O’Donnell from the match day squad altogether, obviously due to his part in the Medard try which is a bit harsh on the player whose ball carrying and tackle count was high during the French contest.
The young Leinster back row player will have a baptism of fire when he faces this experienced England back row. Robshaw, Haskell and the marauding Vunipola at eight. England have being prominent in their breakdown play, slowing opposition ball and always looking to steal ball when the opportunity arises.
Van der Flier will be competitive in the breakdown but questions will be asked of his decision making when at scrum-time. When does he break from the scrum to counter-act Vunipola ball carrying threat which will be barreled down Sexton’s channel? Failure to make the right decision and Sexton conceivably could be on the sidelines early doors such is the aggression and physicality expected from the hosts on Saturday afternoon.
For England, this is where they need to make a serious statement of their long term ambitions to become Europe’s number one team. Their abject RWC failure last year will spur on their effort but this weekend will see first hand how England have adapted their game plan to breakdown resolute defensive structures such as Ireland’s. A fatal flaw in their RWC campaign was their sheer inability to win the gain line battle and their lack of cohesive attacking play in the back line. Saturday will see how far George Ford and Ben Youngs’ relationship at half-backs has evolved to be able to unleash a back line on paper which looks full of pace and enterprise.
Jonathan Joseph’s hat-trick against Italy in the previous round showed when England are given a pack platform and quick ruck ball, they are quite the formidable outfit. Jack Nowell and Watson on the wings provide dynamism with ball in hand and both players are capable of creating a try out of absolutely nothing. Nowell’s try against Scotland was well worked but the Exeter Chiefs awareness of space was all too evident in scoring the try.
I can see no weak points in this England outfit. Their front five are abrasive, strong at set piece time. Joe Launchbury’s absence will be a boost to Ireland but in Maro Itoje, they have a potential upcoming rugby star. The Saracens player has it all to be a standout performer for many years to come; physicality, abrasiveness and raw power are in abundance. His work ethic and pace for a second row is freakish. Devin Toner and Donnacha Ryan will have their work cut out to stem the influence of Itoje and Kruis in the set piece.
Ireland on paper have a team which looks dynamic but the question is whether Joe Schmidt will ask his half-backs to play conservative in the same vain as the previous two RBS 6 Nations fixtures. Line breaks have being created but there has being a lack of creativity and composure in finishing these opportunities off. By injury, Joe Schmidt has picked a three quarters which looks quite exciting on paper.
McCloskey at twelve is the equivalent of Maro Itoje for England. The Ulster player is a beast of a player and his ball carrying and ability to win the gain line battle will be crucial for Ireland to launch go forward ball. Henshaw at thirteen could see the best of the player. The Leinster bound player has being stifled in his attacking contributions to date but with a physical player like McCloskey alongside, surely Henshaw will be provided with more opportunities to run into space.
The inclusion of Keith Earls for the luckless Dave Kearney is a solid inclusion. Earls’ cameo against Wales was full of work rate and defensively solid. Earls may need to exude those attributes again on Saturday as the hosts may have the majority of ball possession early doors. Earls’ ability to score a try from nothing is well documented and if given an opportunity will convert.
Rob Kearney at full back has being defensively solid as always but it will be interesting to see if the Leinster man can contribute anything coming into the line with ball in hand. Payne’s best position is full-back and if recovered from injury, would Joe Schmidt consider Payne for the fifteen jersey if McCloskey and Henshaw play well at Twickenham.
The Ireland half-backs will be solid. Murray will provide that defensive assurance around the fringes while also launching box kicks to win territory. Sexton if able to see through the majority of this contest will provide game management to launch his back line but this can only be achieved if the Ireland pack provide a platform.
This is where I fear for Ireland. England’s front five is per player on better form when compared with Ireland who have struggled with match officials interpretation at scrum time and have being exposed on occasion on the line-out minus the O’Connell effect and no conceivable third lineout option.
Donnacha Ryan and Devin Toner’s form this season has being inconsistent at best and it will be interesting to see how this partnership goes against an England line-out which has being efficient. The lack of a consistent third lineout like O’Mahoney could be a decisive miss for Ireland on match day.
England’s scrum is the cornerstone of their side to build their platform. Marler and Cole are experienced operators and the fact that Joe Schmidt has had to rush back Mike Ross back to the trenches speaks volumes. Nathan White is dropped to the bench and Tadgh Furlong is omitted from the match day squad. The upside is that Cian Healy will be on the bench to be thrust into action with thirty minutes left but will his introduction be too late?
Ireland should have no pressure on them this weekend. The Paris loss and the lengthy list of tournament ending injuries means that expectations should be lowered to a certain extent. The new players hopefully will perform but there are question marks on several facets of Ireland’s play which points to an England win.
Given that the conditions are expected dry, England will try to bludgeon Ireland with their pack early doors and I am not confident that Ireland’s front five will be able to stand to the pressure. Maro Itoje debut try from a relentless England maul is a certainty. England to win in a high scoring game where Ireland’s back line will provide optimism for the remainder of the tournament.
Verdict: England by ten points