The 127th meeting between Ireland and England has already been touted as a possible championship decider after their respective opening wins and France’s surprise loss at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome. Ireland may benefit from home advantage, but this Six Nations Championship encounter remains incredibly difficult to call.
Reasons to back Ireland
Predictable yes, but the greatest Irish player to ever grace a rugby field has an outstanding record against England. Ireland have won each of their last seven meetings when BOD has been available. He missed the Twickenham demolition last season and a recent World Cup warm-up, but had starred in the corresponding Six Nations fixture two years ago. His return and man-of-the-match performance against Wales last weekend wowed the rugby world, and he is certain to be in the thick of it yet again on Sunday.
While England came through their opening game with relative ease against Scotland, Ireland had a real battle in Cardiff. Collectively they made 200 tackles, more than double England’s total (86). But while they may have felt the consequences of that earlier this week, Declan Kidney has reported a clean bill of health. Match practice will always be the best means of preparation when it comes to being ready for what will be another massively physical game on Sunday. And having been severely tested by Wales, Ireland will certainly be ready to match England’s physicality.
The choke tackle
More than any other nation, the Irish forwards have mastered the art of the choke-tackle as a means of securing turnover ball. A tactic they employed to great effect at the previous World Cup, it’s often Rory Best and Sean O’Brien at the heart of the action, holding their opponent off the ground to create a maul situation which prevents the recycling of possession and results in a turnover.
Reasons to back England
It’s no secret that England will go after the Irish set-piece again having ruthlessly dismantled their pack at Twickenham last year. One year on Ireland remain as vulnerable as ever in the scrum, and continually reliant on Mike Ross to cover the tight-head position. Declan Fitzpatrick is an alternative on the bench but realistically Ireland need Ross to hold up the Irish scrum for the full 80 minutes. In contrast Stuart Lancaster is able to call upon Dan Cole, regarded by many as the form tight-head in the Northern Hemisphere and one of the first names in most speculators’ Lions XV, while Joe Marler looks set to continue on the opposite side, Mako Vunipola providing an alternative option off the bench.
Behind that lot is a weighty, abrasive pack, but one which is mobile enough to cause havoc at the breakdown. Scotland failed to cope with their physicality, and should Ireland also come into difficulties they will struggle to create line-breaks if their backs are starved of quick-ball from the base of the ruck. Whilst in possession England themselves are greatly improved in this area, as demonstrated during their momentous autumn victory over the All Blacks. On that occasion their clearing-out was superb, and again last week, 12 clean line breaks, 22 defenders beaten and 18 completed offloads suggest they continue in the right direction, though Ireland will provide a sterner test than Scotland.
Stuart Lancaster has unearthed a gem after Twelvetrees’ impressive debut last weekend brought an extra dimension to the English attack. Suffice to say that not only is Twelvetrees a potential game-changer in the second-five eighths position, but an imposing physical presence in the midfield to boot. Manu Tuilagi will return to the fold too, but probably from the bench as Lancaster continues with a well balanced Twelvetrees-Barritt combination.
So much depends on the set-piece, but should Ireland achieve parity there, avoiding a repeat of last year’s capitulation at Twickenham, then I’ll back them to edge another classic encounter. Ireland by 2 points.