Six Nations Week 3: England v Ireland

Posted: February 21, 2014 in Europe
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Saturday February 22, 11:00 AM Eastern – Twickenham, London

What a match this could be. Having already dismantled Scotland and Wales, a confident Irish team travels to Twickenham in search of the Triple Crown. Standing in their way is a very strong English side, desperate to make a statement of their own. It would be surprising if the game were decided by more than a few points.

These are two of the best packs around, although England’s has been significantly weakened by the loss of Dan Cole, who will miss the rest of the season with a neck injury. Cole is not only a strong scrummager, but also one of the world’s most effective tightheads at the breakdown – for a man of his size, he can get quite low over the ball. While he does not win many turnovers or penalties directly, he makes himself a constant nuisance, slowing down opposition ball and forcing opposing forwards to commit themselves to the ruck. And he is capable of playing the full 80 minutes. Cole’s replacement is David Wilson, who is not a real threat at the breakdown, and is unlikely to play more than 55 minutes because he is not fully match-fit after missing two months with a calf injury. Wilson was pretty honest when asked about his goals for the match: “I’m aiming to do the basics well – scrum well, line-out well, get through that, go for as long as I can and not let anyone down.” Irish loosehead Cian Healy will target Wilson at scrum time, and England can only realistically hope for parity in that area. Wilson’s lack of fitness means that 22-year old Henry Thomas, with just 3 caps to his name, will likely get 25 or even 30 minutes in what will be the biggest match of his life.

The battle of the back rows will be fascinating – England has the most dangerous ball-carrier in Billy Vunipola, while Ireland has the best all-around player in the indefatigable Peter O’Mahony. On the bench, Irish coach Joe Schmidt has picked two ball-carriers in Iain Henderson and the uncapped Jordi Murphy, and he will be expecting them to make a major impact.

At scrumhalf, Ireland’s Conor Murray is probably the better player, but Danny Care is in great form, and that battle could go either way. At flyhalf, Ireland’s Jonathan Sexton is clearly superior to Owen Farrell, and Sexton’s ability to control the game with tactical kicking could prove the difference. Uncapped 20-year old George Ford has replaced Brad Barritt on the England bench, and may have a vital role to play.

In the midfield is an intriguing matchup of youth v experience. The legendary Brian O’Driscoll will tie former Australian scrumhalf George Gregan’s record for Test caps on Saturday, and with 130 caps for Ireland, he has 24 more than all 7 English backs combined. O’Driscoll has partnered Gordon D’Arcy in the centers on 53 occasions for Ireland, which is also a record. Opposite them, Billy Twelvetrees and Luther Burrell have played together for England twice, and have just 12 caps between them. While D’Arcy and O’Driscoll may have lost a step or two in attack, they are very intelligent defensively, and trust each other implicitly. The gaps that do open up will likely be small, so Farrell is going to have to be very sharp to put his backs through them.

In the back three, expect Ireland to make Jack Nowell and Jonny May prove they can handle the high ball. If they can’t, it could be a long day for England.

It’s a very tough one to predict, but for me the loss of Cole and the superiority of Sexton at flyhalf just gives the men in green the edge. Ireland by 3

Below, highlights from last year’s match in Dublin:

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