This is a potentially championship-defining weekend in the 2014 Six Nations. Should both currently unbeaten sides, Ireland and France, win again, the competition is effectively over. Whilst mathematically England or Wales could catch either of them, it would take a monumental turnaround in fortunes, given that one of Ireland or France would have to lose to one of the wooden spoon candidates, Italy or Scotland.
Before everyone’s head starts to hurt too much from the maths, let’s look ahead to Saturday’s salivating encounter at Twickenham.
The hosts have, for the first time in a while, a settled look about them. That said, a crucial cog in the big white machine has had to be replaced, as Dan Cole is ruled out for the rest of the season. Whether he has been overplayed or not, Ireland will be looking to get into his undercooked replacement Davey Wilson, in the hope that they can bring down what has thus far been an impressive unit.
Tom Wood and Chris Robshaw have worked brilliantly in tandem this Championship, but face undoubtedly their toughest assignment in recent times, up against the aggressive Peter O’Mahony and the understatedly brilliant Chris Henry. Billy Vunipola should continue his fine form and will look to barge his way over the gainline before offloading, as he has been doing to such great effect so far.
Danny Care and Owen Farrell have been working well so far in attack, but will need to make sure the accuracy of some of their tactical kicking improves. With conditions set to be better than at either the Stade de France or Murrayfield, England fans will be hoping the distribution skills of Billy Twelvetrees and Luther Burrell, which have been somewhat overlooked so far, can bring the likes of Jonny May and Jack Nowell into the game more. The two wingers showed glimpses of their potential against Scotland, but will hope for more time and space this weekend.
George Ford could finally make his debut from the bench, but don’t expect to see him unless England look to have the game won.
54 points scored and only nine conceded from the opening two rounds put Ireland in a commanding position, and they will arrive at Twickenham brimming with confidence. The ground holds no fear for them – they have a good record there, having won three of their last five encounters in London.
The Irish front row will be licking their lips at the prospect of an English opposing unit without Dan Cole in it, while at the lineout the soaring beanpole Devin Toner will provide the sternest examination yet of the hitherto strong Courtney Lawes – Dylan Hartley axis.
The back row is is beautifully balanced, with the quiet work of Chris Henry complimenting superbly the in-your-face aggression of Peter O’Mahony and the box office skills of Jamie Heaslip.
Half backs Conor Murray and Jonny Sexton kicked Wales into submission in the last game – they will have to be every bit as precise this weekend, as Mike Brown is as good as any at positioning himself to counter-attack. Andrew Trimble has been a revelation this championship, and while Gordon D’Arcy and Brian O’Driscoll do not steal the headlines in the way they used to, they have been quietly impressive so far and nullified Wales’ midfield threat last time out.
All eyes on
This has to be a game in which Billy Twelvetrees impresses. He was poor against France and good against Scotland, but there is still a sense that there is more to come from him. With conditions set to be good, Owen Farrell starting to attack the gainline more often and England finally boasting a set of outside backs with real threat, it is time for Twelvetrees to become the midfield linchpin England need him to be.
Ireland scrum-half Conor Murray was so good against Wales that he forced them to do the unthinkable – drop Mike Phillips. His tactical kicking was perfectly precise, which could be a big factor again this weekend given the inexperience of England’s wingers, as well as Danny Care’s waywardness at times. His well-oiled partnership with Sexton has been one of the highlights of the championship so far for Ireland.
Head to head: Davey Wilson v Cian Healy
The literal head to head between these two is going to be vital. Wilson, at his best, can more than hold his own at this level and would be pushing Dan Cole for the starting jersey. That said, he is not at his best at the moment, given that he has been out for two months and only returned to action last weekend with a wobbly 47 minutes for Bath, in which he looked under pressure in the scrum and off the pace in the loose.
Cian Healy, by contrast, has been chewing up and spitting out tightheads in the Six Nations so far, clearly benefitting from the new scrummaging laws, and from the knowledge that he can go hell for leather for 60 minutes and then take a breather with a more than capable replacement in the form of Jack McGrath on the bench to come on.
England have no such luxury at tighthead. Their reluctance to hand Henry Thomas a start, despite Wilson clearly lacking for fitness, speaks volumes, and is hugely worrying, given that it is unlikely Wilson will last the full 80 minutes. England will need to be ahead going into the last 20 minutes.
In fact, picking one key head to head battle is impossible – there are match-ups across the park that will be crucial to the result. Ireland have looked the better team over both games so far, but England were hugely impressive at Murrayfield, learning from the loss to France and even managing to look good in attack, despite the conditions. If they can counter the Irish driving maul, as Wales fatally failed to do, and the abrasiveness of O’Mahony at the breakdown, then they will win. In the form of their pack, and the duo of Robshaw and Wood, they have the capabilities to do just that. Back at Twickenham, they will not be easy to beat. England by 3.
Heading to Twickenham for the game? Be sure to stick around afterwards for more top quality international rugby, as England women take on incumbent champions Ireland. Here’s a taster of what’s in store:
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images