Date: Saturday, March 17th (St Patrick’s Day)
Well, I don’t know how much more I can say about England at the moment. It’s all very well that the Calcutta Cup was a “learning curve” but then how does one take that seriously when Eddie Jones doesn’t change his unbalanced, malfunctioning back row for the French game? And it so showed.
Ireland have been the party poopers of England’s grand slam hopes for a while now (2017, 2011 and 2001) and I feel like it’s England’s turn to spoil the party. And what a better day to do it on, St Patrick’s day!
Jones has made a few significant and long overdue changes to his matchday squad. Hartley returns from injury to start at hooker and captain the side (Jamie George needed a big game against France which unfortunately didn’t happen). Kyle Sinckler earns his 10th cap and 1st start for England with stalwart Dan Cole on the bench. As both a passionate Leicester & England fan, I’m in disbelief over the criticism of Cole. He may be a dying breed of prop but he is committed and passionate and was in great form before the Six Nations (named in both mine and the official Premiership team of the week numerous times) and was the Tigers’ Player of the Month for December. Some England “Fans” like to use Cole as someone to vent all of England’s problems on. So what if he doesn’t carry significantly? That’s not his role in the team and it never was.
Also while Sinckler’s impact in the loose last week couldn’t be doubted, against Ireland’s in form and experienced scrummager Cian Healy, Sinckler could have a long afternoon at the scrum, especially with Vunipola on the other side who’s best attribute was never in the scrum.
George Kruis has come in to partner Itoje in the second row. Kruis hasn’t played well since returning from injury last season but will fill the void in the lineout left by the injured Courtney Lawes. Hurrah, Eddie Jones has finally moved Robshaw back to his best position at blindside, whilst James Haskell is promoted from the bench after making a considerable contribution last week. Sam Simmonds is promoted from the bench after Nathan Hughes’ season-ending injury.
Richard Wigglesworth swaps with Danny Care at scrumhalf which in my opinion is the right call as Wigglesworth is a seasoned player who’s 1st-rate box-kicking and organisation while Care is an impact finisher at international level, nothing more.
Farrell has moved to fly half from inside centre with George Ford dropped to the bench, which to me brings back horrible memories of the World Cup. Yes, Ford was anonymous against Les Bleus but so would have Jonny Sexton been if his back-row was unbalanced and woefully underperforming.
Ben Te’o has moved to inside centre and Jonathan Joseph outside him at 13, although I think that the latter selection is based on reputation than form to be perfectly honest. Henry Slade should be at outside centre, not Joseph.
Joe Launchbury has been moved to the bench which I believe is harsh, it should be Itoje not Launchbury on the bench. Don Armand is set to make his long overdue Six Nations debut and his 2nd cap after injury to Hughes.
In front of a Twickenham crowd, with a proper back row and determination to avenge last year’s defeat, England are capable of turning their recent slump around, restoring momentum and pride. But Ireland will be hungry for their 3rd Grand Slam in history so England will have to be on top form to deny the Irish what the men in green have denied England on so many occasions in the past.
Ireland were slight favourites at the start of the tournament and, while their attack hasn’t been spectacular, their effectiveness in the red zone has meant that every game (apart from the win in France) has been won with a bonus-point. But all of those victories were at the Aviva Stadium, and the win at the Stade de France could have gone either way.
Their defence needs to be better as well. I really like Andy Farrell as a defence coach and he is one of the best in the world as proven on both Lions Tours in Australia and in New Zealand, so I’m sure that Ireland’s leaky-ish defence is a minor and temporary problem. So Ireland aren’t the finished article yet but they’re still streets ahead of anyone else in the Northern Hemisphere at the moment, mainly due to the player management which Ireland have got just right (correcting the mistakes of the World Cup and the Champions Cup afterwards).
Joe Schmidt has made one change to his starting XV with the powerful Iain Henderson swapping with lineout giant Devin Toner. Rob Kearney, Peter O’Mahony and Cian Healy have shaken off niggling injuries to start.
Ireland will know that England haven’t attacked consistently this season, so I don’t believe that their under par defence will be a glaring issue. With a weak scrummaging front row of Sinckler and Vunipola, I believe the scrum will be a priority target of Ireland with both Cian Healy and Tadhg Furlong playing incredibly well. Ireland know that their attack has been two-dimensional at best so I can see them doing an “Exeter” and clocking in the phases into the red zone and try and test England’s defence to the limit. That is a more than capable task as the England seem to have been over-trained this season and so could be shattered come the 60th minute.
All eyes on
For the Irish, my eyes will be on Ulster flyer Jacob Stockdale who has developed a reputation for intercepts so England have to be so careful when throwing the ball around in Stockdale’s channel. His defence has been identified as a weakness but it’s nothing on a Christian Wade-level from what I’ve seen so I don’t think England will gain too much from launching the big ball carriers of Simmonds and Sinckler at his throat.
For England, my one to look out for will be James Haskell, an experienced flanker and England stalwart who returns to the international scene to start his 1st Six Nations game since England last faced Ireland last year. He looked strong against Les Bleus and will look to improve England’s broadly-stated problems at the breakdown.
Head to head
Jonathan Joesph and Garry Ringrose is quite an interesting head to head as they are both similar in attack yet the latter is clearly the one in form at the moment. Lions teammates Jonny Sexton and Owen Farrell (who hasn’t started at flyhalf for England since the 3rd test in Australia back in 2016) is another crucial head to head with both playmakers trucking up good metres in attack this Six Nations, though Sexton is ahead in terms of kicking accuracy. However, my most important head to head is Conor Murray vs Richard Wigglesworth, both scrum-halves are renowned for their box-kicking accuracy and control of the game, so I think that this is the key battle and it is where the game will be truly won.
Please see Hutch’s article later today with all the Six Nations Predictions.
By Jacob Bassford