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England a daunting challenge as Ireland look to finish Six Nations on a high

Andy Farrell’s men will need to be at their peak but that may not even be enough.

Ireland captain Johnny Sexton.
Ireland captain Johnny Sexton.
Image: Billy Stickland/INPHO

ENGLAND HAVE BEEN pretty clear about what they expect from Ireland today – a good lineout, plenty of kicking, and lots of passion.

The English have actually been misguided in some of their expectations already this week, with their confident pronouncements that Peter O’Mahony would be coming straight back into Ireland’s starting XV proving wide of the mark.

But England’s assessment of what this Ireland team offer is accurate and it shouldn’t be seen as a complete dismissal. A good kicking game and quality set-piece are the basis for winning Test matches and Ireland proved that last weekend as they snuck past Scotland having relied on those two elements, as well as the usual high work-rate levels.

While their attack has continued to be underwhelming and defensive slip-ups have been costly, Ireland come into today’s clash with England [KO 4.45pm, Virgin/ITV] still fighting for a top-half finish and having steered clear of what once looked like the strong possibility of losing four games in this championship.

It would require Ireland upsetting the odds after Eddie Jones’ side impressed last weekend as they won a thrilling game against France, with key men like captain Owen Farrell and Maro Itoje nearer their best after poor starts to the Six Nations. 

Ireland will need to be at their peak for this one as the English look to finish their own frustrating campaign with a dominant performance in a fixture they have dominated in recent years. Even Ireland’s best might not be good enough if Jones’ men fully fire.

Farrell’s team selection clearly surprised the English as O’Mahony was named on the bench, but it’s a side that few would have predicted with total accuracy.

Ireland’s forwards have been in strong form in this championship under Paul O’Connell and even with three personnel changes from the Scotland game, there is much to like about the pack Farrell has picked. Dave Kilcoyne rotates in at loosehead prop in place of Cian Healy and will offer a more dynamic ball-carrying option.

conor-murray Conor Murray is back at scrum-half. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

James Ryan is missing due to injury – a major blow – but the outstanding Tadhg Beirne shifts to the second row from blindside flanker and will be alongside Iain Henderson, who is playing some of the best rugby of his career. Lions boss Warren Gatland will be watching both Irish locks with interest again today. 

The back row surprised everyone, with Jack Conan coming in at number eight and Josh van der Flier replacing Will Connors at openside after the chop tackling expert suffered a cruel knee injury while doing ‘extras’ after training on Wednesday. 

CJ Stander, set for his 51st and final Ireland cap before retirement this summer, moves to the number six shirt, where his Test career began back in 2016 with a man-of-the-match performance against Wales. It really won’t shock anyone if Stander is in the mix for that award again today and his impending exit add to the emotion of the occasion for Ireland.

The Irish backline also shows three changes, with Conor Murray returning in a very familiar halfback pairing with captain Johnny Sexton. They need to be at their best to steer Ireland to success.

Bundee Aki makes his first appearance of the championship with Garry Ringrose ruled out through injury, meaning a shift to the number 13 shirt for the in-form Robbie Henshaw. 

Jacob Stockdale’s comeback on the left wing will be fascinating. He is fully fit again after a recent knee injury and replaces James Lowe, who pays the price for last weekend’s poor performance against Scotland by dropping out of the matchday 23. The reliable Hugo Keenan and Keith Earls provide continuity in the back three. 

Farrell will surely call on the explosive qualities of Ryan Baird earlier than the final 10 minutes today, the 21-year-old Leinster man having provided genuine impact in the last two games, helping Ireland to salvage their win at Murrayfield. 

As for England, Jones has unsurprisingly stuck with a very settled team as he looks to build on the win over France. Henry Slade is out with a calf injury, so Elliot Daly comes back into the team at outside centre, offering a cannon of a left boot in the number 13 shirt. 

While the English kicking game will be important as ever, Jones will hope to see Ford and Farrell combine in the kind of playmaking fashion that saw them stretch and break France at times. With Anthony Watson and Jonny May out wide, England can be ruthlessly clinical at their best.

owen-farrell-is-tackled-by-damian-penaud Owen Farrell was excellent last weekend. Source: Andrew Fosker/INPHO

With Kyle Sinckler keen to prove a point on the same pitch as Lions tighthead rival Tadhg Furlong, Tom Curry in superb form in the back row, and Billy Vunipola getting better with every game in this championship, England have enough weapons to extend their winning streak against Ireland to five games.

England have smothered the life out of them on the last four occasions with their ultra-aggressive defence, so Ireland will hope attack coach Mike Catt and Farrell’s plan can catch the visitors off guard when everyone is expecting more of the same.

Ireland:

15. Hugo Keenan
14. Keith Earls
13. Robbie Henshaw
12. Bundee Aki
11. Jacob Stockdale
10. Johnny Sexton (captain)
9. Conor Murray

1. Dave Kilcoyne
2. Rob Herring
3. Tadhg Furlong
4. Iain Henderson
5. Tadhg Beirne
6. CJ Stander
7. Josh van der Flier
8. Jack Conan

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Replacements:

16. Rónan Kelleher
17. Cian Healy
18. Andrew Porter
19. Ryan Baird
20. Peter O’Mahony
21. Jamison Gibson-Park
22. Billy Burns
23. Jordan Larmour 

England:

15. Max Malins
14. Anthony Watson
13. Elliot Daly
12. Owen Farrell (captain)
11. Jonny May
10. George Ford
9. Ben Youngs

1. Mako Vunipola
2. Luke Cowan-Dickie
3. Kyle Sinckler
4. Maro Itoje
5. Charlie Ewels
6. Mark Wilson
7. Tom Curry
8. Billy Vunipola 

Replacements:

16. Jamie George
17. Ellis Genge
18. Will Stuart
19. Jonny Hill 
20. Ben Earl
21. Dan Robson
22. Ollie Lawrence
23. Joe Marchant

Referee: Mathieu Raynal [FFR]
Assistant referees: Mike Adamson [SRU] and Craig Evans [WRU]
TMO: Romain Poite [FFR].

- This article was updated at 2.39pm to correct the assistant referees. 

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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