It simply doesn’t get much bigger than a Grand Slam match in Twickenham but can this Irish team get the job done & make history against a proud, wounded and much changed England side? There’ll be nothing scummy about this one, so join PSA Academies’ Johne Murphy as he goes through the key factors that will decide an epic encounter.
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It’s Cheltenham week and as the Irish dominance of that festival grows and grows, it will be hard to dampen the enthusiasm and even confidence of Irish fans heading towards London this evening. Add into the mix the fact that it’s St Patrick’s Day and the weak minded could be forgiven for believing that it is simple destiny that Ireland will complete the perfect Championship on the hallowed Twickenham turf tomorrow afternoon.
Well, let me reassure anyone getting carried away, it is INCREDIBLY hard to win in Twickenham. I mean 4 times in 30 years hard! As it is, there have only been 2 away wins in the 6 Nations this year alone, so even winning away from home is hard BUT add in England as an opponent, Twickeham as a venue and a Grand Slam match as an occasion and you surely see the stretch in the challenge for Ireland.
Having said all that, as the racing experts will have lectured us this week, form is form and the great ones should be able to ‘act on any ground’ and deal with any occasion. The question is just how good is this Irish team and this is a question that a bruised England team, under a seriously under fire coach in Eddie Jones, will be looking to find out right from the off tomorrow.
First up, Joe Schmidt has largely stuck by the side who dealt with a dangerous Scotland so effectively in what turned out to be a Championship clincher last Saturday. It was tough for Devin Toner to lose out after a very effective game in victory but Henderson’s edge in mobility, ball carrying and handling looks like it just gave him the edge in selection. Apart from that, the only other real concerns caused in the Irish camp would have been the fitness of those carrying knocks from last weekend, particularly Cian Healy, but on face value, Ireland have a clean bill of health which is a real boost at this stage of affairs.
As for England, well Eddie Jones’ hand has been well and truly forced, meaning that he has made a raft of changes, some of which were much discussed before their Paris defeat. It has definitely given his side a much better, balanced looking feel in many respects. For sure, not many are arguing with the shuffle at half back and midfield, with Owen Farrell reinstated at outhalf to orchestrate a hard running, direct pressure game outside hugely experienced Saracens team mate Richard Wigglesworth and inside a more balanced looking pairing of Teo and Joseph. The other key problem area for England in their last two defeats was the backrow and with Lawes injured, the chosen three of Robshaw at 6, Haskell at 7 and Simmonds at 8 has a much more effective look to it. Having said that, this unit is up against an Irish backrow playing out of their skin and it is hard not to feel that Jones missed a trick in not going the full distance and selecting in-form Don Armond as a flier at 7.
Ireland’s gameplan this Championship year won’t surprise the English, although Joe being Joe will have definitely been working up specific plays and tactics for what always looked like it had the potential to be a crunch decider tie. With the changes that England have made adding a new dimension in terms of strength and directness, this has made them a potentially very dangerous side again.
We can expect England to apply massive pressure from the start of the game, both in terms of a far more accurate, territorial kicking game (they will look to unsettle the Irish back three) and hard running carries from the back row and centres either side of Farrell to target Sexton and try and lure the Irish backrow into situations where they will struggle to gain dominance. The whole controversy with Assistant Referee Marius van der Westhuizen officiating at an England training session, which resulted in him being removed from active service for the game, just indicated how far Eddie Jones was willing to go in looking to gain a technical edge on how to win what should be a huge breakdown contest. If they want to win this one, Ireland are going to have to get an upper hand in the set piece and ruck time, plus they are going to have to keep their defensive shape and scramble effectively against a dangerous, quick English back three.
Personally I can’t wait to see two masters at 10 lock horns and whilst Sexton and Farrell, who are similar characters, seem to have a very good relationship, we can expect to see little evidence of that tomorrow. Both of these guys are born winners, nerveless playmakers, warriors who will take it on themselves to win what will be a crucial duel. Farrell is at his best and most effective at 10, with that move alone transforming England’s chances tomorrow. Having said that, outhalves can only be as good as the service they get and while it is likely to be pretty even upfront, Ireland definitely have the superior scrumhalf in Conor Murray.
So how will it pan out? Honestly, it is hard not to be nervous about this one as an Irish man. Any trip to Twickenham is a fraught prospect but throw the Grand Slam opportunity into the mix and you’re into a scenario that Irish sides would often wilt away from. Yes, England are low and their pride is dented. Yes, Ireland are the form side (although probably without the complete performance yet), have a fantastic mix of youth and experience, plus the genuis of Joe Schmidt pulling the strings.
It’s very hard to call BUT I’m going to go for Ireland to just hold a rejuvenated England out with an 80 minutes performance meriting the Grand Slam, 6 Nations Championship and Triple Crown clean sweep.
Prediction: Ireland by 4 points
See all the picks for the PSA Academies 2018 NatWest 6 Nations Predictions Challenge here