'This fixture has heft' - Stuart Barnes says Ireland game will make-or-break England's Six Nations
Stuart Barnes believes that Ireland will provide the most exacting examination yet of England’s development since Eddie Jones succeeded Stuart Lancaster in the wake of a disastrous World Cup.
While so much of the narrative of this year’s Six Nations has chronicled the supposed malaise currently enveloping Irish rugby, it’s easy to forget that England, for all their club’s successes in Europe, endured a worse end to 2015.
Exiting a World Cup they were hosting at the Pool stages, group of death or not, was received as a downright disaster and ultimately led to Stuart Lancaster and his coaching ticket being stood down.
In comes Eddie Jones, fresh off inspiring Japan to their most successful showing yet on the biggest stage, with the promise of better times being just around the corner.
Jones, of course, has had minimal time with his new squad, though quickly replaced Chris Robshaw - who was also moved to blindside flanker- with Dylan Hartley as captain, and elected to play George Ford and Owen Farrell as a double-bolt playmaking combination.
Thus far, the experiment has yielded two wins from two in an as yet fully ignited Six Nations. The first, a narrow victory over a game but limited Scotland and then an almost facile romp of Italy.
England have bettered Ireland in three of their last four Championship meetings and are favourites in most estimations.
Writing in his Sky Sports column, Stuart Barnes ventured that Ireland, injury laden or not, will be a significant step up in competition and, should England fail, and the Triple Crown and Grand Slam are off the table, Jones’ revolution will be quickly cast into doubt.
“Cue the promised extra pace of Eddie Jones' England team. Not a bad start to the new regime nor a great one, this is the opportunity for England to take the next step having beaten Europe's weakest two sides.
“A win and people will be talking Grand Slams, defeat and some will be saying, 'what's different to the last regime?' Yep, this fixture has some heft behind it,” wrote Barnes.
The former Bath out half has been a vocal defender of Joe Schmidt of late, amid the klaxon calls for the Kiwi to refine his tactics and selection policy.
Given the laundry list of injuries Ireland are contending with, including, for the moment at least, Jared Payne, Barnes reckons Schmidt will prefer a compact and low-risk game plan in Twickenham on Saturday.
“Given the extent of the injury list don't expect Ireland, either, to throw caution to the wind. Rather Joe Schmidt might think the only way he can beat England is by closing down the game at Twickenham, slowing the pace and keeping it within the confines of the breakdown fringes where Ireland defend tremendously.”