Such has been the furore surrounding Owen Farrell, you would be forgiven for not remembering that there is a match this weekend, and a rather crucial one at that.
While the result ultimately means little, getting a performance is vital, especially for England. The Red Rose, under pressure following a loss to Wales in Cardiff, sent out a stronger side in the reverse fixture, only to struggle once again and almost succumb to Warren Gatland’s men at Twickenham.
A late rally snatched a 19-17 victory over the Welsh, but it came at a cost as their captain and linchpin was sent off for a dangerous tackle on Taine Basham.
Many expected a ban which would take in much of the Rugby World Cup pool stages but rather surprisingly the red card was downgraded by an independent disciplinary panel.
The Farrell saga has duly taken up most of the column inches leading into this encounter and you wonder how much it has affected England’s preparations going into the clash.
Ireland, the world’s number one outfit, are probably not the side you want to face when confronted with these off-field disruptions.
The Irishmen’s build-up has been rather serene by contrast having started with a relatively comfortable victory over Italy two weeks ago, but they will need to go up a level in Dublin.
It was this time four years ago when Joe Schmidt’s outfit visited Twickenham and were on the receiving end of a 57-15 shellacking by an impressive England side.
That result and performance provided a rather large indicator as to where the team was at going into the global tournament as they exited at the quarter-final stage following a disappointing defeat to New Zealand.
They therefore need to lay down a marker at the Aviva Stadium and show their fans that they are going in the right direction ahead of the World Cup.
A repeat of 2019 is certainly not going to happen this weekend and, if anything, the Red Rose are more likely to be licking their wounds after a 40-point hammering.
Where the game will be won
England will once again try to bore their opponents to death, relying heavily on their kicking game, which means that the chase has got to be spot on. If not then Ireland, who like to play multi-phase rugby, will run riot if they get a steady supply of ball in the Red Rose half.
Steve Borthwick’s men actually defended pretty well in the Six Nations clash and fronted up against a physical Irish outfit, but Andy Farrell’s side did make a few uncharacteristic errors. Nerves won’t be so much of a factor this time around so England will have to be even more accurate around the maul, breakdown and in the wider channels.
Can they do that? Well, on the evidence of the past two matches, certainly not. Ireland are the world’s best for a reason and, even without Johnny Sexton, their structures are so well set that it makes it easier for the new man. There are very few weaknesses in this Irish team, so we are struggling to see where the visitors can target. In comparison, England are doing very little right at the moment, which means it could be a long 80 minutes for Borthwick’s charges.
Last time they met
What they said
Ireland wing Keith Earls admits that it is a “relief” that he has finally reached the century milestone after being named in the squad for Saturday’s game.
“It would be a massive honour but also just a bit of relief because I was stuck on 98,” Earls said.
“I suppose in the last couple of years I was genuinely thinking every time I stepped on to the field it could be the last time. I’d be extremely proud and privileged to join a unique group.
“I just kept the head down and I’m grateful. I’ve a great relationship with Andy and great trust with Andy and we’ll always be honest with each other.
“I genuinely have probably had my best pre-season this year as a professional rugby player. We’ve got everything spot on between all the training, physios, coaches, so it’s been really enjoyable.
“I suppose there’s that bit of pressure as well because you want to repay them (the coaches) as well but Andy’s just big on allowing us to be ourselves and not blowing things up too much or trying anything special.
“It’s just be yourself and if you’re special, you’re special, but it gives you great confidence, especially as an old winger.”
For England, much of the focus has been on Owen Farrell, who coach Kevin Sinfield believes has been unfairly criticised over the years.
“Owen’s England captain and he understands that it’s part of the territory,” Sinfield said.
“In any sport, if you’re England captain the noise and the heat, the magnitude of it is bigger than if it were anyone else.
“I’ll go back a long, long time to the 1998 World Cup when Beckham gets sent off. If it had been any other player, it probably wouldn’t have been the same.
“I’m not suggesting that Owen is like Beckham at all. I don’t even think that Beckham was England captain at that time. But there are certain players who get a lot of heat.
“I don’t think Owen overly puts himself out there. He’s a really good guy who wants to get better and wants to help the team. Some of it I don’t understand.
“I understand some of the noise. Some of it I don’t get either. You guys have tried to hang him when it’s one poorly-timed tackle. We need to get some balance to this.
“If it’s Owen I think the heat that is generated is far greater than if it was anyone else.”
Players to watch
There are not too many surprises in the Ireland XV this weekend, with Andy Farrell using this game to give his first choice players a run-out before the main event. However, the head coach has experimented in the back-row where he has brought in the inexperienced Cian Prendergast at number eight, who will earn his third cap for the country this weekend.
With Jack Conan currently on the sidelines nursing a foot injury, they are looking for their next back-up to Caelan Doris and the Connacht man is the person they have gone with. Gavin Coombes, who is the more natural fit in that position, has already been dropped from the wider squad, so the 23-year-old is evidently the next in line. He is strong, athletic and skilful and will test the English defence during his time on the field.
This is an excellent kick from Cian Prendergast, playing to the picture in front of him.
He chases it hard and makes the tackle.
Ulster concede a penalty to make it 3-6 to Connacht. pic.twitter.com/1ZAGUrqFe2
— The Loose Head (@TheLooseH) May 8, 2023
Behind the scrum, Ross Byrne is in a similar position to Prendergast. Like the number eight, the fly-half is set to play second fiddle during the tournament but he may well take on an important role over the next couple of months. Sexton will be the first choice pivot but, at the age of 38, there are questions over his durability, especially in a competition as intense as the World Cup. Byrne therefore needs to step up and show his worth on Saturday or it could leave Andy Farrell reliant on Sexton being fit and suspension-free the whole way through.
Ireland certainly have fewer questions to answer than this weekend’s opponents, however. Nothing Borthwick has tried in the previous two matches have particularly worked, so there are several spots in the side still up for grabs. One player who impressed in their opener was Joe Marchant and for the third match running he starts at outside centre.
Alongside the Harlequins star is Manu Tuilagi, who probably produced his best England display for some time in the Six Nations fixture in Dublin earlier this year. There is a nice balance of power and pace in that combination, but there are potential issues in terms of finding that second ball player next to George Ford, who starts in the absence of Owen Farrell, which is why Elliot Daly is crucial. Daly has an excellent passing game so it will be interesting to see if they use him in the midfield off first phase ball.
That is, of course, dependant on how they play the game and whether they are willing to actually chance their arm once in a while. Borthwick also needs his pack to stand tall and get more go-forward with ball in hand, especially Billy Vunipola. The more we see of the 30-year-old, the more we think it was a mistake to overlook both Zach Mercer and Tom Willis.
There are a few fascinating battles, whether it be Josh van der Flier v Ben Earl, Peter O’Mahony v Courtney Lawes, Byrne v Ford or Bundee Aki v Tuilagi, but we’ve gone for a duel in the front-row. Ireland’s Dan Sheehan is probably leading the way for hookers in world rugby right now and we are excited to see what he can produce in the global tournament. The Leinsterman is exceptional in the loose and arguably has the pace of most centres. His set-piece work is also very solid and, as a result, he has cemented that position in the Irish front-row.
Jamie George is a very different hooker, whose lineout darts are among the best around, while his scrummaging work is highly regarded by coaches. Now into his 30s, set-piece has very much taken precedence over his efforts in the wider channels, a facet he excelled in heading into the previous World Cup. George was actually one of the better performers against Wales last weekend and must stay fit if England are to stand a chance – both this weekend and at the global tournament – given the inexperience behind him in the pecking order.
England put up a fight in Dublin earlier this year but, let’s be honest, they are in a pretty dreadful spot at the moment. The Red Rose are, to a degree, further along in their preparation than Ireland having played an extra match, but there are still so many questions about what they are actually trying to do under Borthwick. Ireland, meanwhile, top the rankings and seem well set going into this weekend’s clash. Providing they have got the balance in training right and are not undercooked, it will be a comfortable victory for Andy Farrell’s men. Ireland by 18 points.
2023: Ireland won 29-16 in Dublin
2022: Ireland won 32-15 in London
2021: Ireland won 32-18 in Dublin
2020: England won 18-7 in London
2020: England won 24-12 in London
2019: England won 57-15 in London
2019: England won 32-20 in Dublin
2018: Ireland won 24-15 in London
2017: Ireland won 13-9 in Dublin
2016: England won 21-10 in London
Ireland: 15 Hugo Keenan, 14 Mack Hansen, 13 Garry Ringrose, 12 Bundee Aki, 11 James Lowe, 10 Ross Byrne, 9 Jamison Gibson-Park, 8 Cian Prendergast, 7 Josh van der Flier, 6 Peter O’Mahony, 5 James Ryan, 4 Tadhg Beirne, 3 Tadhg Furlong, 2 Dan Sheehan, 1 Andrew Porter
Replacements: 16 Rob Herring, 17 Jeremy Loughman, 18 Finlay Bealham, 19 Joe McCarthy, 20 Caelan Doris, 21 Conor Murray, 22 Jack Crowley, 23 Keith Earls
England: 15 Freddie Steward, 14 Anthony Watson, 13 Joe Marchant, 12 Manu Tuilagi, 11 Elliot Daly, 10 George Ford, 9 Ben Youngs, 8 Billy Vunipola, 7 Ben Earl, 6 Courtney Lawes (c), 5 David Ribbans, 4 Maro Itoje, 3 Will Stuart, 2 Jamie George, 1 Ellis Genge,
Replacements: 16 Theo Dan, 17 Joe Marler, 18 Kyle Sinckler, 19 Ollie Chessum, 20 Jack Willis, 21 Danny Care, 22 Marcus Smith, 23 Ollie Lawrence
Date: Saturday, August 19
Venue: Aviva Stadium, Dublin
Kick-off: 17:30 BST (16:30 GMT)
Referee: Paul Williams (New Zealand)
Assistant Referees: Craig Evans (Wales), Adam Jones (Wales)
TMO: Ben Whitehouse (Wales)