Date: 19th March 2011
Kick-off: 17:00 (GMT)
Venue: Aviva Stadium
Rightly frustrated and distraught following last week’s controversial defeat in Wales, Ireland are a wounded beast. However, to focus solely on “ballboygate” would be a very convenient way to paper over the many cracks we saw in Ireland’s game. It was unimaginative, with their kicking game being the low point, the main culprits being O’Gara and Fitzgerald. Slices, missed touches, up and unders with no chase, you name it and Ireland did it. They showed so much potential in Brian O’Driscoll’s early score. But, this is all in the past. Ireland’s record of having won 6 out of the last 7 encounters with England since the visitor’s last Grand Slam is one not to be ignored.
A Grand Slam is on the line. England’s first sniff at the Northern Hemisphere’s greatest prize has taken a long time to come around again, and it is an opportunity not to be squandered. Yes, England have been the best side so far in this competition, but they have not been perfect. Far from it. Their efficient lineout and scrum has been a homage to the England of yesteryear, but coupled with some exciting back play this side is very strong. There are weaknesses, attacking wise in the centres, but that is pretty much it. England’s victories have ranged from the emphatic (Italy), to the gritty (France and Scotland). The question is, which England will turn up in Dublin?
What to expect:
My advice would be to soak up every ounce of build-up, every nerve, and many a drink as this has all the makings of a classic Grand Slam decider. Can Ireland beat England? Absolutely. But their scrum and lineout will need to front up, as England are ruthless here. Their driving mauls against Scotland proved quite effective, so expect this to be a tactic against the weaker Irish pack. In the centres, Brian O’Driscoll’s class juxtaposes Matt Banahan’s size, whilst both teams have top runners in the back three. My bet would be that England will go heavy with the forwards early on to establish a lead, and then start to play a bit more loose, with Wilkinson coming on to finish it off. As for Ireland, Jonny Sexton, don’t let them down.
All eyes on:
For Ireland, Keith Earls has come in at full back after Luke Fitzgerald’s shocker last week. Earls can hurt you, we’ve seen it time and again, if given some space, but as one Irish fan pointed out to me this week, he hasn’t started a game at international level at full back since on the Lions tour, when his performance was far from stellar. High balls from Ben Youngs and Toby Flood with England’s monstrous centres running at him might be causing him to lose some sleep. Ireland need some reliability in this key position, so Earls has a big challenge on his hands.
As for England, new captain Nick Easter faces his biggest test yet captaining the national side after leading England against Samoa last year. Mike Tindall’s absence won’t hurt England in terms of leadership because Easter already puts in so much, but this is still a huge game, and the pressure will be on him to make the right calls.
Head to Head: Sean O’Brien v James Haskell
Two big guys with big reputations, the clash of these two back row forwards will be monumental. O’Brien hits everything hard; rucks, bodies and space, and has been one of the most exciting young players to break in to the Ireland setup in recent years. The Leinsterman is having a big season. As for Haskell, he has never been everyone’s favourite and maybe never will be, but his performances for England in this year’s championship have been some of his best. Man of the match against Scotland, his confidence certainly isn’t faltering. England will need every ounce of it on Saturday afternoon.
Last year’s result: England 16 Ireland 20
This game is always a nightmare for me on a personal note. English and Irish parents means I should watch this as a neutral. I saw both teams in the flesh last week and whilst England may not at times play as much attractive rugby as the Irish, they looked a hell of a lot more powerful. Ireland have been unlucky, they could have been going for a Grand Slam had they not squandered two chances against France and Wales. But this is England’s year. England by 4 and the Grand Slam.
by Ben Coles