Ireland v England: Six Nations preview as Andy Farrell’s men set to win Grand Slam with a dominant victory over the Red Rose
A Grand Slam, at the Aviva Stadium on St. Patrick’s weekend? What could be better.
After winning a series in New Zealand, beating South Africa in the Autumn Nations Series and rising to the top of the world rankings, this is another step towards Ireland’s ultimate goal.
It is not the culmination of all their hard work over the past two years, as there is the small matter of the World Cup in France, but it is a triumph which would be cherished by everyone connected with Irish rugby.
Much credit has to go to Andy Farrell, a man that took over from previous head coach Joe Schmidt and was heavily criticised in his first year in charge. His initial appointment was greeted with a few groans and when results didn’t immediately improve, plenty of barbs came his way, but he has shaken it off and produced an outstanding rugby team.
From March 2021 to now, they have gone from also-rans to the best in business and a victory over England in the Six Nations finale this weekend would reward their improvement.
In fact, it was the triumph over the Red Rose in March 2021 which hinted at a brighter future. Going into that clash, there was a certain amount of dismay among the supporters over the direction they were heading, but the hosts produced a stunning performance to defeat the Englishmen in Dublin.
Since then, the two teams have gone in opposite directions and Steve Borthwick’s men head into this encounter at their lowest ebb.
Many thought it couldn’t get any worse following their capitulation against South Africa in November last year, but France had other ideas and ran riot at Twickenham. It was an utter humiliation for England and, on that evidence, they will do well to get close to Ireland at the Aviva Stadium.
Ireland may have had a few disruptions due to injury but they are so well-drilled that whoever comes in knows their role and there should not be too much drop-off.
History beckons for the Irish and, if they do indeed get the job done, then there will be some party in Dublin on Saturday night.
Where the game will be won
For Ireland, it is about implementing what they have done throughout the Championship. When Farrell’s charges get it right, which is rather quite often, they are very difficult to stop. There have been moments when they have been under pressure, such as against France in Round Two and in the first half of the Scotland clash, but there’s always been a feeling that they will eventually get on top.
Even when the Irishmen lost both of their hookers to injury at Murrayfield, which for most teams would have been catastrophic, they handled it impressively. Cian Healy was brilliant in the middle of the front-row while Josh van der Flier was pretty damn accurate with his lineout throwing. It therefore leaves you wondering where England can challenge the hosts this weekend.
Will they get on top in the set-piece? The breakdown? The kicking game? We can’t see how. It doesn’t mean that the Red Rose will ship another 50 points like they did against France, but at the moment Borthwick’s men are so far off Ireland that they won’t be able to dominate any facet.
There are two areas which the head coach will demand are on point, however, and that is physicality and intensity. The English were completely off in that regard against France as they lost the gain line battle and crumbled defensively. Do that again and Ireland will rack up the tries.
Last time they met
What they said
Ireland captain Johnny Sexton hopes there is much more left in him as he sets to make his Six Nations swansong.
“This is the last Six Nations game but there’s so much ahead, please God, if I stay lucky and avoid injuries,” Sexton said.
“There’s hopefully a World Cup, there’s hopefully some knockout games with Leinster ahead in the Aviva so I’m trying to get away from the fact that it’s this big last thing.
“It’s just a cup final and that’s all we’re thinking about.
“You’re playing England at home with something on the line, so it’s always what you’ve wanted to do and where you wanted to be.
“It’s not the last game with this team, well I certainly hope not. We’ve got a lot more of the journey left so I’m not really thinking like that.”
England prop Ellis Genge insists that they will “come out swinging” against Ireland in Dublin.
“We got hammered at home, we’re going away to number one in the world on St Patrick’s Day – literally a day that’s made for them – and they can win a Grand Slam,” Genge said.
“All odds are against us but I’m really confident in the group that we’ll come out swinging.
“Irrespective of the scoreboard, it’s not necessarily about going out there and thinking about points.
“It’s more so now about proving a point that we have got some fight in us because that was questioned at the weekend and it’s not where we want to be as a team.
“It’s just about putting it right for each other. It’s underpinned by the fight and that’s something we didn’t do at the weekend. There’s definitely some dog in this team and it wasn’t shown very well against France.
“I don’t think what we showed against France is the team we are. It was abysmal on our part and there’s a lot that we can rectify reasonably easily. Ultimately it comes down to fighting and that’s what we’re going to do.”
Players to watch
It is a huge day for captain and fly-half Johnny Sexton, who will play likely play his final Six Nations match on Saturday. Sexton comfortably remains Ireland’s first choice pivot and has shown why in this tournament with a series of superb displays. The 37-year-old may have slowed a touch with his feet but his mind remains as quick as ever and his playmaking instincts are still out of the top-drawer.
He will be looking to aid Robbie Henshaw, who makes his first start of the competition following the injury to Garry Ringrose. Henshaw is a first choice selection when fit but injuries have hampered his career over the past few years and it will be fascinating to see how he performs this weekend. The Leinster centre is renowned as an outstanding defender while he regularly makes it over the gain line as a carrier, so there shouldn’t be too much drop-off with him in situ. However, it all depends on whether he is up to speed.
Up front, Ireland are thankful that Dan Sheehan and Caelan Doris have recovered for this clash, especially with them being forced to change things up once again at lock. With Tadhg Beirne and Iain Henderson both going down, it means the youthful Ryan Baird comes into the second-row. Baird has always been a highly regarded talent and he has impressed off the bench against Italy and Scotland, but this will be a bigger test. His athleticism is unmatched but, as ever at Test match level, it is all about the basics and he has a big job to do in lineout and scrum.
The Leinsterman comes up against another relative newcomer to the Test arena in David Ribbans, who also makes his first start in this year’s Championship. He’s played even less than Baird, coming on in the latter stages of England’s record home defeat to France. After his performances in the Autumn Nations Series we expected him to be involved much more, but Borthwick preferred youngster Ollie Chessum to start with the versatility or Nick Isiekwe and Courtney Lawes on the bench.
Following the injuries to Chessum and Lawes, Ribbans now gets his opportunity. There will certainly be no dip in physicality with him on the field, as he will both tackle and carry hard, and his set-piece work is often sound. It will just be whether his lack of minutes at this level will count against him and England, while coming into a side short on confidence is never easy.
If the Red Rose can lay that platform up front, it will make Owen Farrell’s job much easier. Let’s be honest, no fly-half – not even Dan Carter – would have looked good against France last weekend with how badly beaten they were up front. That display was not on Marcus Smith’s shoulders, despite the criticism he received, but equally you can understand the head coach bringing back Farrell. The 31-year-old needs to be much better, however, as he has been subpar in the Six Nations so far.
Those cogs from 1-10 need to work for the rest of the side to look effective but, if Henry Arundell can get some quality ball, he is very much one to watch. At the age of just 20 and with very little rugby under his belt, Arundell already has a pretty lengthy highlights reel and will be a threat on the counter-attack. His tries-to-touches ratio is excellent in his brief Test career so far, England simply need to get him the ball more often.
No two players have really epitomised their teams’ respective campaigns more than James Ryan and Maro Itoje. While the Ireland lock has been imperious, producing career-best performances over the course of this Six Nations, Itoje has struggled to make an impact as the Red Rose have failed to make that leap to the top tier of the European game.
At the moment, northern hemisphere rugby is split into three tiers with France and Ireland at the summit, Scotland and England below them and Wales and Italy right at the bottom. The issue for the Red Rose is that there is a large chasm between the top two and the next best sides, as the results showed last weekend, and they therefore need their best players to step up.
Itoje has been rather quiet over the past 12 months, well away from the world-class levels he has continually shown since making his debut in 2016. The Saracens second-row needs to find a way of making an impact on the contest otherwise Ryan and his team-mates will have a field day against a struggling English pack.
Let’s be honest, Ireland are going to win comfortably aren’t they? Andy Farrell’s men have quite rightly guarded against complacency this week and have praised the talent England contain, but they are in a different stratosphere to the visitors right now. They will defeat the English, win the title and claim a fourth Grand Slam. Ireland by 20 points.
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
2015: Ireland won 19-9 in Dublin
Ireland: 15 Hugo Keenan, 14 Mack Hansen, 13 Robbie Henshaw, 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 Ryan Baird, 3 Tadhg Furlong, 2 Dan Sheehan, 1 Andrew Porter
Replacements: 16 Rob Herring, 17 Cian Healy, 18 Tom O’Toole, 19 Kieran Treadwell, 20 Jack Conan, 21 Conor Murray, 22 Ross Byrne, 23 Jimmy O’Brien
England: 15 Freddie Steward, 14 Anthony Watson, 13 Henry Slade, 12 Manu Tuilagi, 11 Henry Arundell, 10 Owen Farrell (c), 9 Jack van Poortvliet, 8 Alex Dombrandt, 7 Jack Willis, 6 Lewis Ludlam, 5 David Ribbans, 4 Maro Itoje, 3 Kyle Sinckler, 2 Jamie George, 1 Ellis Genge
Replacements: 16 Jack Walker, 17 Mako Vunipola, 18 Dan Cole, 19 Nick Isiekwe, 20 Ben Curry, 21 Alex Mitchell, 22 Marcus Smith, 23 Joe Marchant
Date: Saturday, March 18
Venue: Aviva Stadium, Dublin
Kick-off: 17:00 GMT
Referee: Jaco Peyper (South Africa)
Assistant Referees: Ben O’Keeffe (New Zealand), Pierre Brousset (France)
TMO: Marius Jonker (South Africa)
READ MORE: Can you name the 2009 Grand Slam winning Ireland team?
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