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Ireland will win the Six Nations but they won't beat England

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Ireland's Jonathan Sexton, under pressure in last year's Six Nations game against England

Ireland's Jonathan Sexton, under pressure in last year's Six Nations game against England

SPORTSFILE

Ireland's Jonathan Sexton, under pressure in last year's Six Nations game against England

IT MAY have started with a shaky 40 minutes, but Ireland's Six Nations tournament has taken off.

They had the nice settler of having two home games to kick off with. It helps you to find your stride, shake off the rust, and build momentum.

From the 39th minute of the opening game against Scotland they have been rather special. They have struck a balance between controlled precision and unadulterated intensity. When they come hunting for you now they are a throwback to the good old days when you didn't want to be anywhere near a ball in Dublin as the world fell in around your ears.

At the same time they have found themselves a rather special tactician in Joe Schmidt, can call on a serious set of heavyweight leaders, and have introduced some new fellas who bring the youthful exuberance that does not fear failure. Twickenham will be a step up and the signs of an epic tussle look inevitable.

If Wales' players have the look of men with a Lions hangover, then Ireland's have the air of those who suddenly tasted an unforgettable victory or want to right a lifelong slight. There were injuries for Kearney, O'Connell and Healy on the tour and Rory Best could not get anywhere near his Ulster or Ireland form.

And then there was the exclusion from the third Test starting team for Heaslip and O'Driscoll. Sportsmen can be nasty and single-minded when they need to be and this lot look like they want to remind everyone what they can do. And then there is Johnny Sexton. I am no psychologist, but he seems to want out of France. Ireland and the Six Nations gives him the freedom to live and smile again.

Ireland have been given clear and simple instructions on how to do it by a coach who isn't afraid to switch tactics, but is willing to trust in his cohorts to deliver. They are in a happy place, and there will be no fear of Twickenham or Paris. I have had them to win this championship for a long time. But I am less convinced they will complete the Grand Slam.

Passages of play in the last two games have had me genuinely thinking this is England's best team for a decade. Tough, uncompromising and definitely not perfect – but they are fast learners. There are not many people you worry about when those ingredients are in your locker. So the France game will have been galling.

But for long periods in Paris, England were excellent – for the first 10 minutes in the second half they were unstoppable. The decision-making process can be reviewed in their classroom and some decisions will not be taken again. All good sides go through this process.

In Scotland they were at their old-school best. Conditions dictated that.

The team understood it and they put one foot on Scotland's neck early, and never released the pressure.

Units and styles are developing. The back-three go hunting and get involved.

FREEDOM

The back-row has a little bit of everything and is balanced. The half-backs are given freedom to play. Danny Care did not need asking twice, while Owen Farrell has jumped aboard the Mike Catt fun bus. Farrell has better alignment, use of foot speed attacking the line, awareness of options and use of decoys.

The front-five are a tough piece of work and Courtney Lawes' line-out work and calling has been brilliant. The Northampton units are working the line-out. What an opportunity for Lawes to test himself against Paul O'Connell next week. With Harlequins' style being fed in from the 9 and 15, and Chris Robshaw beginning to play the role he plays for 'Quins as a first receiver with increasing regularity, it gives England such pace with the ball and so much harder to hit.

The midfield have had a pleasing couple of outings too.

But here come the Irish, no matter what the league table says, next week the two best teams in the tournament will meet.

England are building, quietly, calmly, and with focus. They are nowhere near perfect – very few sides ever get near that – but they are a side that back themselves. And I will be backing them to beat Ireland. (©Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent