Preview: England v Ireland

Date published: February 21 2014

Their first two hurdles successfully cleared, Ireland travel to Twickenham sniffing the scent of a second Grand Slam in five years.

Their first two hurdles successfully cleared, Ireland travel to Twickenham sniffing the scent of a second Grand Slam in five years.

Such thoughts would have been deemed presumptuous before the Six Nations, and perhaps they still are now, but the fact is that no team has been more impressive across the opening two rounds than Joe Schmidt's side. The narrow loss to New Zealand doesn't feel like a false dawn anymore.

Stuart Lancaster was not playing mindgames last weekend when he described Ireland as a complete side. Firstly, it is not his style, but secondly he spoke the truth.

Ireland's is a team seemingly without any weak spots. The front row have been to this dance many times, Paul O'Connell bangs the drum with as much ferocity as ever. Peter O'Mahony has played as if on fire. That's before you consider the underrated Devin Toner, the influence of Jamie Heaslip, the workrate of Chris Henry. This is a pack after all missing one of Europe's finest in Seán O'Brien.

The difference however is Jonathan Sexton. His start to life in France is not quite on the Gethin Jenkins' level of unhappiness, but he certainly seems unsettled. Place him on the expansive turf of the Aviva behind a powerful set of forwards though and the British and Irish Lions fly-half purrs.

Ah, the Aviva. Ireland are five games into the Schmidt era, with three wins (Samoa, Scotland, Wales) and two losses (Australia, New Zealand) to their name. The long-term objective has to be defeat those latter two sides – something England have done in the last 14 months – but so far all of Ireland's matches under Schmidt have come at home. They are untested away from Dublin, and their last away match in Six Nations was a defeat to the Azzurri.

Ireland's players have played enough rugby all over the world to not be daunted by playing at Twickenham – in fact they have won there as recently as 2010 and 2006. But it's an unknown scenario for this new Ireland, for Schmidt as a Test rugby coach. He tasted Heineken Cup success there with Leinster back in 2012, but this is on another level.

Schmidt's focus is more likely to be on how to tactically pick England apart in the same manner that Wales were left fighting for air two weeks ago.

Inexperience on the wing in Jonny May and Jack Nowell seems to make them ripe for an accurate kicking game from Sexton, Conor Murray, Brian O'Driscoll and Rob Kearney. England's blitz defence is effective but not foolproof.

The Dan Cole factor cannot be underestimated. Cole, still only 25, has started 45 of England's 48 Tests – missing two due to being away with the British and Irish Lions last year. He has been the fulcrum of England's scrum in the Lancaster era, the only starting survivor from the last Rugby World Cup.

His absence is massive not so much because it hands Ireland an advantage at scrum-time, but takes away an English strength. David Wilson is a fine tighthead – he started ahead of Cole against Argentina – but has only played one match since returning from injury, last weekend for Bath against Exeter Chiefs. How much he has in the tank is questionable but the fact is England will miss Cole's security.

They have been in sore need of developing a genuine tighthead backup for years and while Wilson does have over 30 caps, they are nearly all from the bench.

It's a mistake Lancaster cannot also make with his fly-halves, hence the inclusion of George Ford on the bench instead of Brad Barritt. Ford and Owen Farrell could be the next great fly-half duel for years to come, two players who have been team-mates through all age groups and even neighbours.

The 20-year-old Bath number ten is an incredibly exciting talent, but for now Farrell rules the roost. He is a much improved player for his stint in Australia with the Lions.

The comfort of Twickenham will certainly provide solace, as will how well England's line-out has functioned under the guidance of Dylan Hartley and Courtney Lawes (although less so with Tom Youngs throwing in.) They will be well challenged by O'Connell's men.

Win here back at home and England's title hopes are alive again. Forget the inexperience, they certainly have the means and talent to do so.

Players to Watch:

For England: The fanfare for Sam Burgess joining Bath and breaking into the England side is all well and good, but first he has to take the shirt from Billy Twelvetrees. The Gloucester centre is easing the pressure on Farrell and allowing the young Saracen to express himself, whilst also offering his own varied abilities of carrying and passing at a very high level. His fresh combination with Luther Burrell is gradually blooming too. David Wilson's every step will be scrutinised. His task is unenviable but this is the chance he was waited for.

For Ireland: It's hard to ignore a landmark moment for Brian O'Driscoll as he draws level with George Gregan's Test record 139 caps. The Blackrock centre has received countless brilliantly written passages of praise throughout his career, so I'll keep it brief. As a kid growing up and learning the game, the emergence of Brian O'Driscoll with that hat-trick in Paris swept myself, millions of other fans and no doubt yourself reading this into an era where we would be fortunate enough to watch one of the greatest centres of all time work his way into rugby folklore. He has been a credit not just to Leinster and Ireland, but to the whole sport. Even better, his selection now is not one of sympathy. The magic remains. Elsewhere, Peter O'Mahony appears to have developed the ability to play out of his skin at Test level. The breakdown will be ferocious.

Head to Head: Countless matchups stand out – Vunipola against Heaslip, Lawes fronting up to O'Connell, Brown and Rob Kearney – but it's the battle of the number nines that will dictate. Conor Murray's kicking game against Wales was outstanding, while Danny Care has been the heartbeat of England's attacking game so far, making chances and tries. Two different players but two big influences.

Recent results:

2013: England won 12-6 in Dublin
2012: England won 30-9 at Twickenham
2011: England won 20-9 in Dublin
2011: Ireland won 24-8 in Dublin
2010: Ireland won 20-16 at Twickenham
2009:Ireland won 14-13 in Dublin
2008: England won 33-10 at Twickenham
2007: Ireland won 43-13 in Dublin
2006: Ireland won 28-24 at Twickenham
2005: Ireland won 19-13 in Dublin
2004: Ireland won 19-13 at Twickenham
2003: England won 42-6 in Dublin

Prediction: It's a mark of respect for Dan Cole that his absence changes almost the whole basis of this prediction. There will now be questions over England's scrum. Can the hosts overcome the physical presence at the breakdown and give Ireland's aging midfield pair the runaround? Or