This weekend England face possibly their biggest challenge of the tournament so far as Andy Farrell’s men await in England’s first home match of the championship. The team in white now have a chance to impress in front of a home crowd. (No projectile bottles expected this weekend, wind blown or otherwise).
We didn’t learn much tactically in the last round. Storm Ciara saw to it that the match against Scotland stayed as little more than an arm wrestle, something that would always play into England hands, against an underpowered team needing fairer conditions to express themselves.
What we did learn was that England are up to the fight, arms went up after the final whistle in Murrayfield, and big words from Ellis Genge after the match showed a solidarity within the team, and that 1, they aren’t to be written off and 2, they remain behind Eddie. Uniting behind a common enemy, in this case the media, (sausages they are) can be enough to put a solid team performance together.
But Jones’ selections continue to confound and confuse. Manu Tuilagi comes back into the team to add some punch in midfield, with Elliot Daly moving to full-back in place of the injured George Furbank.
Many England fans have been calling for Ollie Thorley to be given a go on the wing and as the perfect opportunity arises, there will be exasperation to see Joseph in unfamiliar territory at 11.
The talking point of the tournament for England fans had been the selection of Tom Curry at 8. I’m getting a little bored of talking about it, and now there are even more out-of-position selections to dissect, but it is worth a mention this week against the strongest pack England have faced to date.
CJ Stander will be his opposite number this time out and has been in fantastic form, with great ball carrying and turnover stats. Curry may be able to match him at the breakdown but surely the gap is too big to bridge as a ball carrier?
In the front row, a second Vunipola-shaped hole means a re-introduction for Joe Marler. Mako could prove to be a big loss from a scrum that looked very promising against Scotland. The second row will be made up of Maro Itoje and George Kruis, a partnership that worked well against Scotland. The Lawes at flanker experiment looks to be continuing despite an improved performance with Lewis Ludlam at flanker. How is Lawes’ reintroduction justified?
Ireland have been enjoying their rugby so far this championship but England at Twickenham is a huge test. One inclusion that will be missed by Irish fans is the lack of John Cooney at scrum half, an exciting talent and an issue mirrored in the England team. Experience over youth has been the way for both coaches with Jones opting for Ben Youngs, who certainly had a better game in the wind and the rain than Willie Heinz, who struggled to adapt to the conditions. However it would be nice to see Heinz get another go in more ‘normal’ conditions. For Andy Farrell, picking Murray is a safe choice and leaving things in very capable hands. This is a totally unchanged team for Ireland but why move away from a formula that worked so well against Wales?
I originally had this down as a narrow win for England, but after seeing the updated line up I have shifted my thinking to the opposite and I predict a narrow win for Ireland.
It’s going to be fascinating to watch either way. Lose and Jones will be the villain. But could the mad genius prove to be the hero after all?
By Ed Francis