Ireland and England face off at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin this weekend with the Guinness Six Nations Championship out of reach. However, with a potential British & Irish Lions tour this summer making this test match an opportunity to impress Warren Gatland ahead of any squad selection on that illustrious tour.
Ireland have made six changes from the side who narrowly beat Scotland at Murrayfield last weekend. The pack is rejigged with David Kilcoyne, Josh van der Flier and Jack Conan coming into the lineup for Cian Healy, James Ryan (HIA) and Will Connors (knee injury).
Conor Murray returns at scrum-half. The three quarters sees Bundee Aki primed and ready to make an impact from twelve where Robbie Henshaw shifts to thirteen. The back three sees James Lowe taken out of the firing line and is replaced by Jacob Stockdale who will look to put his best foot forward on the wing.
England buoyed by their late victory over France last weekend keep their changes to an absolute minimum. Henry Slade does not make the test match due to injury which sees Eddie Jones look to Elliot Daly to provide three quarter dynamism in attack.
It is all about continuity for Eddie Jones. The English performances recently have improved particularly with ball in hand, far more threatening with increased speed and tempo. Why change this momentum and cohesion ahead of this test match?
My reaction to this Ireland side is that Andy Farrell is genuinely concerned by England both in defense and attack. The decision to pull Jamison Gibson-Park from the lineup speaks volumes. The memories of Gibson-Park’s defensive vulnerabilities in Twickenham last November fresh in the management team minds perhaps?
Conor Murray will provide more defensive cover behind the pack that is for sure but the attacking speed given by Gibson-Park has to be acknowledged. Quick ball from nine is required at the weekend. Ireland management appear more concerned on the defensive side of the ball no question.
Lowe taken out of the firing line
Ireland’s outside defense has been a huge source of concern in this tournament. It is unfair to attribute all blame to James Lowe but there have been several defensive failures which could not be overlooked particularly after last weekend.
James Lowe is a quality player but the test match level has identified big defensive issues which he needs to sit down, regroup and make the necessary adjustments. You can argue that this defensive system is evolving under Simon Easterby or down to the player not making the right defensive calls or tackles at key moments. It is a bit of both from my perspective.
Jacob Stockdale comes into the test side with plenty to prove. His experiment at full back last year was a mixed bag. There is no doubting his potential with ball in hand but like James Lowe, the defensive side of his play has and will be under the microscope again this Saturday.
There is no point saying otherwise because England will target Stockdale early and often. I hope Stockdale comes through this test match with flying colors as we need the player to propel himself to new performance levels. It will aid more competition for back three spots and as a national team, that is the sort of problem you want.
Ireland pack look to scrum time for dominance early
There was going to be pack changes given the news that James Ryan was ruled out early in the week. Tadhg Beirne who has reveled in the six jersey in recent test matches moves back into the second row to partner Iain Henderson. Both have been standouts for the Irish pack in this tournament.
A change in the front row where David Kilcoyne gets his chance to impress from the start; his cameos in this tournament have stood out for the work rate and intensity. Scrum time will be a huge area where Ireland will try to exploit to secure a platform early. Kilcoyne, Herring and Furlong are more than capable of delivering for Ireland.
England back row unit cohesion could be decisive
The big concern for me in this test match selection is with the back row unit. Is it balanced enough to contend with the threat of Mark Wilson and Tom Curry in the breakdown while also sufficient physically to propel Billy Vunipola and his ball carrying trait? Josh van der Flier should provide mobility and line speed to assist in this respect.
Conan at eight and Stander at six will be an interesting dynamic as I see both as very similar players. Conan needs to provide a platform at eight, set a marker early against Vunipola. It is a tall order. Wilson so abrasive and physical. Curry is a world class back row operator and could be the influential player in this test match come the final whistle.
I just do not see how Ireland’s back row unit selection can counteract this England back row unit given their current form over eighty minutes. Will Connors’ absence is huge, the player would have provided a massive work rate and chop tackle option and cut England go forward ball at source. Interesting watch on Saturday to see these units go head on.
Ireland lineout concerns
The lineout will suffer also for Ireland as a result of James Ryan’s absence. This set piece has progressively improved in recent fixtures (thanks in no small part to Paul O’Connell’s involvement) but they face a massive test in England who pride themselves in their line out and with the likes of Maro Itoje and Charlie Ewels looking to set down a marker early,
Rob Herring has reduced lineout targets to hit. Henderson, Beirne and perhaps Stander / Conan for an option. The sight of Peter O’Mahony coming off the bench is a welcome sight for the lineout in the second half but I think this could be daunting fixture for Ireland in this area of play also.
How do Ireland solve the England game plan?
England will come with huge line speed and physicality to the party. How do Ireland counteract a threat which they have failed to solve in recent test matches? Quick ruck ball required but will be extremely difficult given the pack changes this weekend, there will be cohesion issues (no case saying otherwise).
The one out ball carrier tactic does not work against England. Ireland have tried and tried this option and England have smashed Ireland into submission. You need to change the point of attack early and often, take the big hitters out of the equation and look to probe the outside channels.
An efficient kick game, box kick for a reason is required. Possession is required from Ireland to see if England’s discipline issues rear their head. It happened against Scotland and Wales early in this tournament. The French game was better from England in this regard but if Ireland could secure a platform from the pack early, England could go back to those bad habits in quick time.
A potential area where Ireland could pose England issues in attack is in the three quarters. Robbie Henshaw is having an incredible tournament. His form has been superb and his running lines and threat with ball in hand to the fore. Aki will provide physicality and should provide Henshaw more chances to orchestrate.
Daly at thirteen will be tested regularly by Aki. Is there an opportunity in this area? Daly is a standout footballer but defensively has been exposed in this tournament (more so due to lack of game time with club). Henshaw will look to get on the shoulder of Aki often to unleash an exciting Ireland back three on paper.
Ireland have massive incentive to win this test match. England’s recent dominance in the last two years is noteworthy. The farewell test match for CJ Stander in an Ireland jersey. The incentive of British & Irish Lions squad places for grabs.
Andy Farrell and management need a performance from their team this weekend, otherwise this tournament will be seen as a disappointment. If England were to inflict a beatdown on Ireland, would questions circle on Farrell’s long term future as head coach?
Wales may be playing for a Grand Slam this weekend but the stakes are pretty high in Dublin this weekend too for Ireland and England who know a test match win sets themselves up well for the run into RWC 2023. Roll on Saturday!