The #6Nations is back with a bang this weekend and on paper, the match of the round see’s Andy Farrell’s rejuvenated Ireland side visit Twickenham for a crunch encounter with Eddie Jones’ England. PSA Academies’ own Johne Murphy is back with his 2020 6 Nations Preview England v Ireland, looking at the various fascinating angles for what should be a mammoth encounter. Read his preview below.
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We’re back to 6 Nations action after the mid-tournament break and after what should be a really competitive pair of Saturday matches (Italy hosting fellow strugglers Scotland, while Wales host a resurgent France), the biggest game of the weekend sees Ireland make the trip to the HQ of English Rugby for a 3pm kick off on Sunday. It’s going to be really fascinating to see an Ireland squad steered by two of the biggest names in recent English Rugby history, Andy Farrell & Matt Catt, facing off with an England led by the increasingly unpredictable Eddie Jones calling the shots. And what an experience for the Farrell family, with Dad Andy facing son Owen for the first time as International Head Coach v International Captain.
Enforced change the only change for Ireland
First up, Andy Farrell and his coaching ticket have put their faith fully behind the Irish team that impressively dispatched Wales in the 2nd match weekend clash in Dublin. After a stuttering start to his reign versus Scotland, the victory against Wayne Pivac’s Welsh side really started to reveal the new ambition, freedom and belief that Farrell and his coaching ticket are looking for from the squad. It’s become increasingly clear that a key element of their approach is stripping away some of detail, pressure and intensity that ended up stifling the on-field performance towards the end of the Joe Schmidt reign, putting more trust in the players’ ability to see and exploit broken field attacking opportunities as and when they emerge. Ireland are uncharged from the Wales win, bar the enforced absence of Iain Henderson (congratulations to himself and his family on the new arrival!) and reinstatement of big Devin Toner. This selection is entirely vindicated, with really strong performances from new and old stars across the squad of 23 two weeks ago. In practicular, it is a huge testament to both the resilience and ability of Toner that he’s been able to bounce back as he has done from such a career body blow as getting left at home for the RWC. He’s going to be a big feature in Sunday’s game, not only giving the Irish hookers Rob Herring and Ronan Kelleher extra security on their throw in but giving us an even bigger threat on competing for English ball in the air.
English state of flux or selection masterstroke?
While Ireland are unchanged, Eddie Jones and his management team have made another interesting selection call, bringing Elliot Daly back in for the injured George Furbank at full-back, with centre Jonathan Joseph being handed his first-ever start as winger on the day of his 50th cap. That’s a really big call up against a back three as dangerous and on form as Ireland’s Jordan Larmour, Andrew Conway and Jacob Stockdale. It looks to me like England’s brains trust may be trying to negate Ireland’s rediscovered line speed by having Daly as a really effective left-footed kicking option, giving them a triangle of world-class open field kickers in Ford, Farrell and himself that can expose the 13 up, 2 back defensive system that Ireland favour. The likely thinking is that moving Ireland’s two ‘goalies’ around at the back, isolating them with well-placed kicks to the left and right backfield edges, may put Ireland’s support defence and defensive set-piece under significant pressure. Elsewhere, England are clearly weakened by the ongoing absence of the Vunipola brothers but having Manu Tuilagi back in the starting 15 (that’s going to be some contest versus Bundee Aki) and Henry Slade back on the bench is a big boost for them. The headscratcher is the ongoing mismatch which is the England back row, with three fine players in Courtney Lawes (blindside), Sam Underhill (openside) and Tom Curry (number 8) all being selected out of position once more. This was a disaster against France and while they may have gotten away with it against Scotland in dire conditions 2 weeks ago, it looks like an area that a balanced and in-form Irish backrow can make big gains against.
Battle of the benches
It’s interesting to see the different mindsets of the two head coaches in terms of their replacements set up, with England opting for a risky 6/2 split on the bench, with scrum-half Willi Heinz & utility back Henry Slade set to cover all the backs positions. Ireland have kept it conventional with a 5/3 split and look to have a more balanced bench, with the inclusion of Ultan Dillane giving it a nice new athletic edge. The Connacht man burst into the consciousness of all Irish rugby fans with a really eye-catching impact from the bench back in 2016 and after missing out on RWC selection (just like the starting Toner), he’ll be gagging at the bit to make a big impression if/when he gets his chance on Sunday. Likewise, the unlucky Caelen Doris will be delighted to be back in the squad and while CJ Stander has more than done enough to justify his ongoing starting role in the number 8 position, the Leinster backrower should make a serious impression, with his footballing ability and pace, once sprung from the bench for the last quarter.
Catt-like attacking prowess
I’m fully expecting to see big progression on the Irish attacking shape this week, with supremo Mike Catt having had another few weeks to build on some of the excellent strides revealed in the Welsh game. No different from Stuart Lancaster or Andy Farrell himself, the ex-Bath & London Irish playmaker would understandably have felt a bit slighted the way he was moved along from the England set up and no doubt was frustrated by the limitations of working within the Italian set up for the last few years. He’s clearly enjoying the opportunity of working with a hungry, talented Irish squad, in what is probably one of the best attack coaching roles in international rugby.
Tactical affair with conditions an impact
After a couple of heavy recent defeats at the hands of the English and with a Triple Crown/Grand Slam to shoot for, Andy Farrell and his men should have little need for any extra motivation this Sunday. As ever, the visiting team will need to really set the tone for the clash early and it is going to be critical that Ireland are physical, aggressive and accurate in everything they do in the crucial first quarter. England, despite a poor enough championship campaign to date, are always a formidable challenge at home and they are going to be hugely motivated. Depending on the weather conditions (currently looking dry but windy), both teams are going to look to use tactical kicking and pressure on the ball to try to get an early edge. The set piece is going to be really crucial and with Ireland’s scrum coming to the fore in the Welsh victory, referee Jaco Peyper and his assistant referees are going to have a bit of work to do to police that contest.
Hard to call but form is the edge
This is going to be a proper battle, with England retaining much of the ability and game smarts that got them to a Rugby World Cup Final only a matter of months ago. However, the disruption caused by English rugby’s various controversies, not to mention the pressure mounting due to Eddie Jones’ relationship with the English media, has disrupted the form of this English team in the 6 Nations to date. Of course, the sight of their biggest local rivals in Ireland might be enough to shake England out of their stupor but for me, Ireland just have the edge on form and hunger for this one.
Ireland to scrap home by a one score margin, with the prospect of a Grand Slam showdown against France in Paris on the closing weekend still intact!