In an encounter with the feel of a title decider, the Six Nations’ only remaining unbeaten sides meet on Sunday as Ireland host England.
Since Martin Johnson’s side had their Grand Slam ambitions wiped out in 2011, England have enjoyed a healthy run of four wins in succession over Ireland – matching Ireland’s streak from 2004-2007.
This fixture over the last few years has acquired a real edge, with little separating either side (England’s scrum-based demolition in 2012 aside).
Two years ago, in mercilessly dire conditions, Owen Farrell was the real difference in the wet, his commanding performance getting the job done.
While not the greatest of games it did mark the end of a ten-year long run without success in Dublin for England in the Six Nations, having not triumphed in the Irish capital since Johnson’s men handed out that 42-6 thrashing after lining up on the wrong side et al.
A lot can change in two years, which is why England will return to Dublin with only five of the starting XV from two years ago. Four of Sunday’s backline – George Ford, Luther Burrell, Jonathan Joseph and Anthony Watson – hadn’t been capped.
England have impressed by progressing despite the high number of injuries. The new lock pairing of Dave Attwood and George Kruis have gelled. Burrell and Joseph look balanced and threatening, the latter being the tournament’s standout player so far.
Ford and Ben Youngs have stood out as well, with the Leicester scrum-half back in favour and crucially one of England’s more experienced players.
Stuart Lancaster’s side spread their wings against Italy by attacking from all areas, but they won’t be quite so loose in Dublin given a greater tactical battle awaits them.
So much regarding this fixture rests on the aerial battle – not just the jumping of the chasers but the accuracy of each kick but as well.
The more solid under the high ball the better, hence England’s preference to wait until the 11th hour before officially ruling out Mike Brown after his concussion against the Italians.
England would never jeopardise Brown’s health by making him play, but nor did they want to be without last year’s Six Nations Player of the Tournament if there was a chance that he could have been fit.
Conor Murray, Johnny Sexton and Rob Kearney will instead be kicking towards Alex Goode, who hasn’t started a Test for England since the 30-3 drubbing they suffered in 2013 against Wales but was part of the side that won in Dublin two years ago.
Sexton was an inspiration against the French, copping every crunching hit they threw at him and shrugging it off to producing a tactical kicking masterclass. While France opted to batter their way through Ireland, Sexton shifted the French piano around with ease.
England’s back-three will have intently studied the footage trying to work out when to drop and when not to, but at times there is no good defence for the perfect kick into the corner.
Sexton produces those over and over, one of the aspects that makes him one of the great fly-halves in the game. Ireland are undeniably weaker without him.
He will hunt down any space behind that England leave available. Elsewhere there’s no contest in terms of experience between Devin Toner and Paul O’Connell against Attwood and Kruis, but can they dominate their younger opponents? England’s eight as well are all about work-rate in comparison to France’s blind power, putting the onus on Peter O’Mahony to run himself ragged yet again.
Perhaps most importantly, England will have watched Uini Atonio’s monstrous introduction off the bench for France and the consequent damage it did to Ireland’s scrum with a wry smile. Joe Marler will be more than happy to get another crack at Mike Ross, who struggled against France and was bested by Marler twice this season already in the Champions Cup.
Control the restarts and kicking game as they often do and combined with home advantage, Ireland’s chances are strong. England have had two weeks to devise a system to counter Ireland’s boot-to-ball strategy and prevent leaving too much space behind, while also remaining in position in case Ireland begin to run out wide.
England expect a kicking battle – perhaps Schmidt will deliver the opposite. Test rugby always has been a game of chess and the Ireland coach is currently top of the pile.
Europe’s best two hopes of a Rugby World Cup victory facing off against each other is not a game to miss.
Ones to Watch:
For Ireland: Jamie Heaslip’s enforced absence opens the door for Jordi Murphy at number eight, as the Leinsterman wins his seventh cap. The Spanish-born back-rower is highly rated within the Ireland camp and will provide a useful lineout option, even if the side loses a little size with the shorter and lighter Murphy filling Heaslip’s boots. Only 23 years of age and in his biggest game yet after two previous starts against Argentina and then Italy three weeks ago, when he carried tirelessly.
For England: Out goes Jonny May and in comes Jack Nowell on to the wing for England, with the Exeter Chief winning his first cap since last year’s Six Nations. Nowell has developed in his short time with England into being a secure and trustworthy option, something that can’t be said of the maverick May. Undaunted under the high ball last year, he’s unlikely to be this time either in Dublin. A real talent who shone against Harlequins in the Premiership last weekend.
Head-to-Head: The battle between Mike Ross and Joe Marler will give referee Craig Joubert plenty of work, but the duel between the number sevens is intriguing. Sean O’Brien’s long-awaited return to Test rugby against France was a success – his first international since November 2013 – as he hurled Frenchmen out the way at the ruck and physically imposed himself. Ireland need him to get over the ball at the breakdown frequently on Sunday. He comes face-to-face with England captain Chris Robshaw, the top tackler in the Six Nations so far. Robshaw at last seems to have won over nearly all of England’s supporters with his tireless displays in recent Tests. Possessing one of the best engines in the game, Robshaw is massive when England need him to be.
2014: England won 13-10 at Twickenham
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: A tough one, with more questions than answers. Can Sexton produce two kicking masterclasses in a row? Will England be able to make enough opportunities for Joseph? The Springboks and Wallabies have gone to Dublin in recent times and fallen. The gut feeling is this will come down to a single kick. Ireland by 3.
Ireland:15 Rob Kearney, 14 Tommy Bowe, 13 Jared Payne, 12 Robbie Henshaw, 11 Simon Zebo, 10 Jonathan Sexton, 9 Conor Murray, 8 Jordi Murphy, 7 Sean O'Brien, 6 Peter O'Mahony, 5 Paul O'Connell (c), 4 Devin Toner, 3 Mike Ross, 2 Rory Best, 1 Jack McGrath
Replacements: 16 Sean Cronin, 17 Cian Healy, 18 Martin Moore, 19 Iain Henderson, 20 Tommy O'Donnell, 21 Eoin Reddan, 22 Ian Madigan, 23 Felix Jones
England: 15 Alex Goode, 14 Anthony Watson, 13 Jonathan Joseph, 12 Luther Burrell, 11 Jack Nowell, 10 George Ford, 9 Ben Youngs, 8 Billy Vunipola, 7 Chris Robshaw (c), 6 James Haskell, 5 George Kruis, 4 Dave Attwood, 3 Dan Cole, 2 Dylan Hartley, 1 Joe Marler.
Replacements: 16 Tom Youngs, 17 Mako Vunipola, 18 Henry Thomas, 19 Nick Easter, 20 Tom Croft, 21 Richard Wigglesworth, 22 Danny Cipriani, 23 Billy Twelvetrees.
Date: Sunday, March 1
Venue: Aviva Stadium, Dublin
Kick-off: 15:00 GMT
Referee: Craig Joubert (South Africa)
Assistant Referees: Jérôme Garcès (France), Mathieu Raynal (France)
TMO: Deon von Blommestein