In typical Eddie Jones fashion, the England head coach caused a stir seconds into his first press conference of the week by uttering the words “Ireland are favourites”.
Had Jones started the mind games early or was he merely being truthful? Such is the Australian’s penchant for using the media to dictate the narrative before a game, no one was quite sure, but ultimately, the Red Rose boss was not wrong.
Andy Farrell’s men quite clearly go into the clash as the team in form, despite the records of both sides reading the same. Discounting the respective Italy encounters, which told little about either side, the Irish have produced much the better performances. They were outstanding against Wales, defeating the defending champions 29-7, before they almost overturned France in Paris from 22-7 behind.
You have to marvel at their tempo and accuracy – they are arguably the most efficient outfit in world rugby at getting quick and clean ball at the breakdown – while their skills are improving all the time. There is also more dexterity and sleight of hand than they had under Joe Schmidt, with the two Tadhgs, Furlong and Beirne, performing this role superbly, leaving them in a strong position 18 months out from the World Cup.
They are certainly ahead of England in that regard, who have struggled to get their rhythm in attack. Even though Marcus Smith has settled in nicely at Test level, the individual units in the backline are not quite on the same page at the moment.
It must be said that Smith and playmaking cohort Henry Slade have not been helped by a lack of spark in the wider channels, with Jones opting for solidity and rugby smarts over raw pace and running talent. A change in that area would have been preferred but the England boss has kept faith with wings Max Malins and Jack Nowell, as well as utility back Elliot Daly on the bench.
On paper, there is not one area where the English are stronger – even though it is tight in a number of positions such as front-row, back-row and at half-back – and Ireland should very much have the upper hand.
The loss of Andrew Porter and Ronan Kelleher is a blow, breaking up what has been a hugely effective trio, but their replacements hardly lack quality.
For England, the pieces are there – and considering their player pool, they arguably always are – but Jones has yet to fit them together properly. Rhythm and form are huge in the Six Nations and that’s where Ireland have a significant advantage.
This Red Rose side may eventually become more effective than their Irish equivalent but, at the moment, Farrell’s charges are two or three steps ahead on their journey.
Last time they met
Speaking of the ‘journey’, it was the reverse fixture last year which really kick-started Ireland’s. Farrell had come in for plenty of criticism during the 2020 and 2021 Six Nations campaigns after taking over from Schmidt following the World Cup, but their dominant victory over England restored faith in the team. The Irish were utterly brilliant from start to finish and dismantled a disappointing Red Rose outfit 32-18 thanks to tries from Keith Earls and Jack Conan, and the accurate kicking of Johnny Sexton, who scored 22 points.
What they said
England head coach Jones heaped praise on Ireland ahead of the fixture at Twickenham on Saturday.
“It’s an important week in the tournament, there are three teams left in the tournament and we’re lucky enough to be one of those three,” he said.
“Ireland are favourites for the game, they’ve been in very good form in the autumn, they’re a very settled team, and very well-coached by Andy Farrell.
“And apart from Andrew Porter I think they’ve got everybody available and ready to go.
“They are literally, and I say this without any hesitation, the most cohesive side in the world. The bulk of their team train together for the bulk of the year.
“So they are very well-coordinated in their attack, they are very structured, they’re very sequenced in set plays. And they’re tough around the breakdown.
“So that poses a great challenge for us. But we’re looking forward to the challenge, we’re not intimidated by any team and we’re looking forward to playing against them.”
“The last time we were there it didn’t go to plan,” he said.
“The last couple of times we were there we’ve been beaten once in a full stadium in the last game before Covid hit and then obviously we had a game during Covid (in the Autumn Nations Cup) and we didn’t come away with a win either time.
“They’re a top team, they’re ahead of us in the world rankings and we have it all to do away from home.
“We just need to concentrate on ourselves and make sure we do our prep in terms of their team and individuals and threats they pose.
“Ultimately it will come down to how we play on the day under the pressure they put on us.”
Players to watch
There are few changes to the England side – perhaps unsurprising given the fact they have won two in a row – but there are certain aspects of their game which need to improve. The Red Rose have certainly lacked punch out wide which means both Max Malins and Jack Nowell need to produce. Nowell, to us, looks completely out of form and it’s a surprise neither Adam Radwan or Ollie Hassell-Collins were brought into the squad, but one more game means another opportunity for the Exeter wing to show why he has been selected.
Jones will equally demand more from their set-piece, and especially the lineout, after the struggles against Wales. Jamie George is usually such a reliable thrower, while there are three genuine jumpers in the team, but it was surprisingly off in their previous encounter. There should particularly be pressure on Charlie Ewels, who needs a big game.
We have been slightly perplexed as to why the Bath man continually gets selected when his Premiership form has rarely demanded it. One of Ewels’ main strengths is his set-piece expertise but, when that is malfunctioning, you rather question what else he offers to make him an asset at Test match level. And despite his technical skills, the lineout has never gone better when he’s been in the XV, so Ewels’ place in the team must surely be questioned. That is unless he can produce a performance out of the top drawer on Saturday.
No doubt England’s issues up front is the main reason why Peter O’Mahony, one of the best defensive lineout operators you will see, has been selected by Ireland. His addition to the XV that faced France in Round Two, at the expense of Jack Conan, does reduce their carrying threat, so it will be interesting to see how that affects matters on Saturday, but his nuisance value could impact both the hosts’ set-piece and, therefore, how much influence Smith will have on the game.
The Irish forwards are a very effective unit and you doubt the absence of the injured Porter and Kelleher will hamper them too much. Out go two Leinster front-rowers and in come another two, with Cian Healy and Dan Sheehan being named in the XV. As an inexperienced player, concerns will undoubtedly be raised about Sheehan’s throwing, but he has plenty of jumping options at his disposal with another – Iain Henderson – on the bench to help should it go awry.
Behind the scrum, Mack Hansen is unfortunate to be omitted but James Lowe is rewarded for his performances in the Autumn Nations Series. Lowe has worked hard and has improved his defence immeasurably, so England will no doubt have to be wary of his all-round game. Meanwhile, Andrew Conway returns after missing the Italy clash and is in fine form, scoring his 14th and 15th Test tries against Wales, and is one of the sharpest finishers in Europe.
You can’t really look anywhere else than at fly-half when the master takes on the apprentice. People keep writing off Johnny Sexton but he always comes back and produces world-class performances, even at the grand old age of 36. Sexton’s experience, skill set and exceptional rugby brain obviously means that the Leinsterman can control the game, but he also still has enough acceleration to be a threat himself. Quite often when a player loses that extra yard of pace, it makes it easier for defences, but Sexton keeps on challenging the gain line and doing so effectively.
Marcus Smith will also look to test the opposition rearguard with ball in hand, using his footwork, speed and balance to find holes in the Irish side. If England can generate quick ball, their fly-half will be a massive threat but, irrespective of that, there are several things in his armoury which are a work in progress. Smith, despite his age, has a superb understanding of the game, but perhaps due to the added pace of Test rugby he is, on occasions, not taking the right option. That will come with time on the field and this is another opportunity to shore up those skills, but he will be targeted both with and without the ball.
We can’t see anything other than a victory for the visitors. The Irish may have struggled at Twickenham over the past decade – 2018 the exception – but they have momentum, form and confidence heading to London. England are still a work in progress, while Farrell’s men are further down the line in terms of their development. Ireland by 10 points.
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
2015: Ireland won 19-9 in Dublin
England: 15 Freddie Steward, 14 Max Malins, 13 Joe Marchant, 12 Henry Slade, 11 Jack Nowell, 10 Marcus Smith, 9 Harry Randall, 8 Sam Simmonds, 7 Tom Curry, 6 Courtney Lawes (c), 5 Charlie Ewels, 4 Maro Itoje, 3 Kyle Sinckler, 2 Jamie George, 1 Ellis Genge
Replacements: 16 Jamie Blamire, 17 Joe Marler, 18 Will Stuart, 19 Joe Launchbury, 20 Alex Dombrandt, 21 Ben Youngs, 22 George Ford, 23 Elliot Daly
Ireland: 15 Hugo Keenan, 14 Andrew Conway, 13 Garry Ringrose, 12 Bundee Aki, 11 James Lowe, 10 Johnny Sexton (c), 9 Jamison Gibson-Park, 8 Caelan Doris, 7 Josh van der Flier, 6 Peter O’Mahony, 5 James Ryan, 4 Tadhg Beirne, 3 Tadhg Furlong, 2 Dan Sheehan, 1 Cian Healy
Replacements: 16 Rob Herring, 17 Dave Kilcoyne, 18 Finlay Bealham, 19 Iain Henderson, 20 Jack Conan, 21 Conor Murray, 22 Joey Carbery, 23 Robbie Henshaw
Date: Saturday, March 12
Kick-off: 16:45 GMT
Referee: Mathieu Raynal (France)
Assistant Referees: Mike Adamson (Scotland), Pierre Brousset (France)
TMO: Marius Jonker (South Africa)
Johnny Sexton versus Marcus Smith
Lewis Moody speaks about veteran Johnny Sexton and young Marcus Smith.