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2019 6 Nations – Johne’s Ireland v England match preview

It’s not often that a potential Championship decider ends up landing in week 1 of the 6 Nations schedule but tomorrow’s Ireland v England face off has the look of one. PSA Academies’ Johne Murphy shares his thoughts on what’s likely to happen  in a match to savour. 


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The 2019 6 Nations starts with a bang this weekend and if a Friday night shootout in Paris in front of a baying passionate crowd doesn’t move the needle, you can be sure that a late afternoon visit of England to the Aviva Stadium the next day will.  Throw in the history, the character match ups (Eddie v Joe and Johnny v Owen to name just two), the stakes, the Brexit bad blood and the Rugby World Cup looming into sight – it’s hard not to be sucked in by the potential for high drama!

However, the one guy who will be looking at this with dead-eyed realism is Joe Schmidt, regardless of what John Mitchell thinks, and that much was apparent by the selection of Robbie Henshaw at full back.  Far from a risky hair brain scheme (Jack Nowell at openside anyone?), this is a classic Joe percentage play.  Henshaw may not have Rob Kearney’s experience at 15 or indeed have much more match fitness in the tank but he is an exceptional footballer with young legs, strong aerial skills, great defence, hard running lines and strong pace.  The Irish management team were clearly waiting to try this play before now (and before Japan) but it has taken quite a while to get Garry Ringrose, Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw all on the pitch simultaneously.  Fair from a potential weakness to exploit, Ireland will be hoping that England and Owen Farrell fall into the trap of targeting Robbie Henshaw, making him a dominant presence in the game.

Outside of fullback,  the Irish selection is as expected, with injuries simplifying the potential selection headaches that might have occurred in the second and back rows if the unlucky Tadhg Beirne and Iain Henderson hadn’t been ruled out.  There might have been a little bit of chat about whether Josh Van der Flier would retain the openside berth but based on his awesome display against the All Blacks, Dan Leavy’s unavailability and Sean O’Brien’s ring rustiness, this was a mere formality.  The make up of the bench is more noteworthy but here you’d have to say that Joe has rewarded form and picked horses for courses by including Dave Kilcoyne, Sean’O Brien and Jordan Larmour.  Quinn Roux’s extra power and the experience plus placekicking of John Cooney also earned them spots in reserve.  There’s no way you’re going to beat a big and powerful England side without some serious reinforcements from the bench, so you can be sure the management team will have left the reserves in no doubt about how important their 20-25 minute stints on the pitch are likely to be.

Looking at England, it’s probably fair to say, either by accident or design, Eddie Jones has finally got his all but full strength team (possibly only missing Underhill at openside) on the pitch.  The main question is whether it is too early to see them at their best?  The back line has a very potent looking mix of pace (in Youngs, Nowell, May & Daly) and power (the centre partnership of Tuilagi & Slade), with the conductor himself in Owen Farrell perfectly positioning to pull the strings.  On paper, there is nothing between the two backlines, so it’s going to come down to the finest of margins there – accuracy with the boot, slickness of handling in what should be clear but cold conditions and simply making the right tactical decisions.   On a personal note, I’m delighted to see former Leicester Tigers teammate Manu Tuilagi back playing and enjoying his rugby again – he’s had a tough few years but a talent like his deserves to be on the biggest stage.

Up front, the English pack have something to prove as a unit, with question marks in a few areas, particularly come scrum time.  Rory Best and his props Tadhg Furlong and Cian Healy will know all about the strengths and weaknesses of the English front row and will be really looking to hound them in the scrum.  Having said that, Itoje and Kruis will be returning the favour at the lineout, with Rory Best’s own form and work here under the microscope somewhat.  Devin Toner’s importance as the go-to-guy here remains high but at times, that comes with the double edged sword of slower, disruptable ball.

In the loose, Eddie Jones will be banking on his main ball carrying threats, the two Vunipola’s and Tuilagi, getting over the gainline and creating some go forward ball for Farrell to really test his father Andy’s defensive set up.  There’s been some media speculation in the build up about Billy Vunipola’s form and fitness (whether he’s protecting his previously injured arm a bit in contact) but there won’t be any hiding place in this game, so if there is any drop in effectiveness from him or any other player, it will be exposed.  Of the two benches, it’s a close call on relative strength but the ability of the wider Irish squad to slot into the first team’s gameplan seemingly no matter the circumstances gives the home team the marginal edge there.

In terms of tactics, Ireland will use their well thumbed playbook, in looking to take the English through an attritional multi-phase, retaining possession & position to try to draw English mistakes and indiscipline.  Needless to say, both teams are going to have to tread carefully early on to make sure they are on the same wavelength as referee Jérôme Garcès in terms of what he wants to see (or more likely doesn’t want to see) in the breakdown battle.  The exit plays are where Joe will be expecting Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton to apply the pressure to the English back three who’ll be expecting it (even if the gym noddles are left at home this time!).  And needless to say, Ireland will be looking to use the twin weapons of an aggressive defensive line speed and exceptional breakdown technique to further pressure the English.

Factoring all the above into the mix, it’s hard not to feel that with an electric atmosphere, perfect playing conditions and a customary strong starting selection on the park from the off, that Ireland are just going to have too much in the locker for an England side that could be much more dangerous come the Rugby World Cup in the Autumn.  It’s hard not to feel like Ireland will look to deliver a carbon copy of the All Blacks win in November, although I think they’ll be doing well to keep this England side tryless.  Ireland are probably going to have to show a little more ambition with the ball in hand this time but the addition of Conor Murray and an extra cutting edge from Henshaw could well be the sparks to light some new fuses. One thing is for certain, this will be another proper Test match and a further needed test for Ireland’s credentials as one of the Rugby World Cup favourites.

Prediction: Ireland by 9 points

See all the picks for the PSA Academies 2019 NatWest 6 Nations Predictions Challenge here 

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