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Ireland are justified favourites but winning in Twickenham is no mean feat

England have the defensive tools to cause Andy Farrell’s side big problems.

Ireland boss Andy Farrell with his players in Twickenham.
Ireland boss Andy Farrell with his players in Twickenham.

IT’S AN UNUSUAL position for Ireland at Twickenham today: being the favourites.

It really is very rare that England are not the more fancied side at their fortress in southwest London. Indeed, we’re told that it is 10 years since the English weren’t favourites on home soil.

Firstly, that’s a reflection of the uncertainty around this latest version of the team under Eddie Jones. ‘New England’ have been finding their feet in attack, with Jones seemingly giving his players more decision-making responsibility. Even while showing bursts of promise, it hasn’t been consistently fluid in this Six Nations yet.

An opening-round defeat to Scotland saw Jones heavily criticised, although it was on a two-point margin in a game of genuine fine margins. England have beaten Australia, South Africa, and Wales during their last six games, so they’re certainly not a poor team. But doubts persist.

Secondly, Ireland’s status as favourites is a reflection of their progress under Andy Farrell since last visiting Twickenham in November 2020 for the Autumn Nations Cup. Ireland lost 18-9 that day but the scoreline didn’t reflect England’s superiority.

The time before that, during the 2020 Six Nations, Ireland lost 24-12 and were also a clear second-best. Jones said after that win that England “could have declared” at half-time such was their dominance. Intriguingly, Farrell mentioned that derogatory comment this week.

Farrell’s Ireland learned from those two Twickenham losses, chiefly that they needed to continue to push their attack away from being reliant on direct ball-carrying and focus more on the subtleties – footwork, passing, and the connection between backs and forwards. We finally saw the fruits of that approach last November as they swept past Japan, New Zealand, and Argentina.

josh-van-der-flier Josh van der Flier during yesterday's captain's run. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Their momentum continued with an impressive victory over Wales on the opening weekend of this Six Nations but then Ireland hit a roadblock against France in Paris in the second round. Les Bleus hammered the Irish breakdown and got major reward.

Even if he insisted “we’re not the French” this week, Jones will absolutely have taken inspiration from that Ireland defeat. Expect a huge battle at the breakdown, where today’s referee, Frenchman Mathieu Raynal, will have lots of decisions to make. 

Having been reliant on their defensive prowess against Wales – 12 of their points came directly from penalties at the defensive breakdown and their only try came from a defensive lineout – it seems England will go hunting Ireland in a similar manner.

Presuming Maro Itoje comes through his illness, he will lead the onslaught, while captain Courtney Lawes, his fellow back rows Tom Curry and Sam Simmonds, and even backs like Jack Nowell will be combative and constantly in Ireland’s faces. If Itoje is ruled out, it would be a huge blow.

When England have the ball, inventive out-half Marcus Smith will be searching for Irish defensive disconnection to bring his goose-step, acceleration, and offloading into play, while also aiming to feed a backline that has plenty of creative edge to it in the likes of Henry Slade and Max Malins.

After Ireland didn’t get a single contested scrum against Italy last time out, they can expect a busy outing in that department. Cian Healy’s experience could be useful as he replaces the injured Andrew Porter to oppose Kyle Sinckler, while Ireland will be hoping their back-up front row of Dave Kilcoyne, Rob Herring, and Finlay Bealham can provide impact late in the second half.

The presence of Peter O’Mahony in Ireland’s back row will be useful at the lineout and maul, areas in which Ireland forwards coach Paul O’Connell and England’s Richard Cockerill have naturally had a huge influence. Itoje and O’Mahony will be relentless hounds on the opposition throw.

marcus-smith Marcus Smith will be in England's number 10 shirt. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

In short, this is a game of contest. It should be feral in that regard. Eddie Jones has promised Ireland a level of physicality they have never seen before, but Farrell’s men must remember what has got them to the point of being favourites. They absolutely have to win collisions and be confrontational, but this side is about more.

With captain Johnny Sexton back to pull the strings, forwards like Tadhg Furlong and Tadhg Beirne capable of lovely touches, and backs like James Lowe buzzing around the pitch, they must make England uncomfortable with both their intricate short passing game and also their kicking game, offering a stern backfield test for the admittedly reliable English fullback Freddie Steward. Ireland must bring the brains as well as the brawn.

A win in Twickenham would be a big moment for this Irish side, who have impressed the world with wins at home in Dublin but who are definitely looking for that landmark success on the road. “The next step” is what Ireland themselves have been calling it.

England won’t give them a moment of comfort today but this is a game Ireland should be winning.

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We know that winning in Twickenham is no mean feat, of course, with just two victories for Ireland in their last 10 visits. Success today would be a huge moment for Farrell’s men.

England:

  • 15. Freddie Steward
  • 14. Max Malins
  • 13. Joe Marchant
  • 12. Henry Slade
  • 11. Jack Nowell
  • 10. Marcus Smith
  • 9. Harry Randall
  • 1. Ellis Genge
  • 2. Jamie George
  • 3. Kyle Sinckler
  • 4. Maro Itoje
  • 5. Charlie Ewels
  • 6. Courtney Lawes (captain)
  • 7. Tom Curry
  • 8. Sam Simmonds

Replacements:

  • 16. Jamie Blamire
  • 17. Joe Marler
  • 18. Will Stuart
  • 19. Joe Launchbury
  • 20. Alex Dombrandt
  • 21. Ben Youngs
  • 22. George Ford
  • 23. Elliot Daly

Ireland:

  • 15. Hugo Keenan
  • 14. Andrew Conway
  • 13. Garry Ringrose
  • 12. Bundee Aki
  • 11. James Lowe
  • 10. Johnny Sexton (captain)
  • 9. Jamison Gibson-Park
  • 1. Cian Healy
  • 2. Dan Sheehan
  • 3. Tadhg Furlong
  • 4. Tadhg Beirne
  • 5. James Ryan
  • 6. Peter O’Mahony
  • 7. Josh van der Flier
  • 8. Caelan Doris

Replacements:

  • 16. Rob Herring
  • 17. Dave Kilcoyne
  • 18. Finlay Bealham
  • 19. Iain Henderson
  • 20. Jack Conan
  • 21. Conor Murray
  • 22. Joey Carbery
  • 23. Robbie Henshaw

Referee: Mathieu Raynal [FFR].

Gavan Casey and Murray Kinsella look ahead to Twickenham and two big URC games involving three of the provinces


Source: The42 Rugby Weekly/SoundCloud

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Murray Kinsella

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