The biggest match of the tournament to date awaits as the only two remaining undefeated sides will trade blows in a pivotal match at the Aviva in Dublin. England have perhaps surprised a little with their form, but Ireland were expected to be right at the top of the heap and must enter as slight favorites with home field advantage. It’s just a shame it has to happen on a Sunday, a day that just doesn’t resonate like proper Saturday rugby does, but the sponsors have to be kept happy, so here we are.
A blowout victory over Italy isn’t something to get overly excited about, but it’s hard not to be at least a little impressed with their professionalism. Since overcoming a tough first half in Cardiff they have never looked in doubt, with only a couple minor slip ups at Twickenham that would have been reviewed to death over the past fortnight. They have momentum and self belief, now the test will be whether they can outperform an equally confident opponent on foreign soil.
Stuart Lancaster has retained virtually the same squad for the third consecutive match, with just two changes in the starting lineup, one enforced, and another on the bench. The most noise has been made about the withdrawal of Mike Brown for precaution as he recovers from concussion suffered against Italy. In his place is Alex Goode, a player of undoubted talent but not so established temperament in big occasions. Chris Pennell was another option, perhaps less exciting but against Ireland’s kicking game he might have been a strong option.
Exeter’s Jack Nowell is named at no11, though it’s likely he’ll line up at his preferred right wing spot come kickoff. Jonny May is the one to miss out, a tad harsh perhaps after a mediocre showing against Italy, but indicative of the very small margins between contenders for the spot. The only other change comes on the bench, with Henry Thomas replacing Kieran Brookes as reserve tighthead. A move to Bath in the off-season has paid rich dividends for Thomas, who has bulked up and improved almost out of sight from his slumping performances with Sale last season.
Ireland are also a settled side, with only a single enforced change to the starting lineup and another minor swap on the bench. Jamie Heaslip has been ruled out for the remainder of the tournament after suffering cracked vertebrae courtesy of Pascal Papé’s knee, so Leinster clubmate Jordi Murphy has been given first crack at the vacant no8 position. He is hard working and knows the game plan, but a step down in ability and especially experience. Tommy O’Donnell comes in to cover on the bench, where there is also a welcome return to fitness of Eoin Reddan, with Isaac Boss left out.
This should be a terrific match, with interesting individual match-ups all across the pitch and an intriguing strategic confrontation between the two head coaches front and centre. Can Devin Toner and Paul O’Connell disrupt Dylan Hartley’s accurate throwing game? How will Jack McGrath handle Dan Cole in the scrum? Is Jonathan Joseph quick enough to best Jared Payne? How many windows will shatter when Billy Vunipola and Sean O’Brien crash into each other?
Each of these things, and so many more, will contribute little bits toward the end result, and that makes predictions pretty difficult. Ireland’s biggest advantages seem to be at no10, where Jonny Sexton’s poise in such games is near unmatched, and upstairs, with the brains-trust headed by Joe Schmidt among the very best in the business. If there were such thing as a ‘form’ coach in world rugby, he would have to be at or near the top. Those points of difference are small, but not negligible. In a game that should be painfully close, one good kick or a well-planned set move could bring home the bacon. Take Ireland by less than one score, 5 points sounds about right.
IRELAND vs ENGLAND
Sunday, March 1, 15:00 GMT, Dublin
Referee: Craig Joubert (SARU)
Assistants: Jérôme Garcès (FFR) & Mathieu Raynal (FFR)
TMO: Deon van Blommestein (SARU)