Saturday 20 January 2018

Ireland v England - Three key battles

The England pack force a scrum penalty against Ireland in last year's Six Nations encounter at Twickenham.
The England pack force a scrum penalty against Ireland in last year's Six Nations encounter at Twickenham.
Declan Whooley

Declan Whooley

Old rivals Ireland and England renew acquaintances in a game that will have a huge say in the destination of the championship. Here are three key battles that will take place this Sunday.

Front row

England's recent run of wins over Ireland has been built primarily on a rock solid scrum, and in particular, a front row scrummaging machine. Tom Court and the Twickenham debacle of 2012 was the most high-profile example of Ireland's troubles in this area. Of the six that started that day, four will be again feature on Sunday, five when as expected Cian Healy is introduced off the bench.

Stuart Lancaster has plenty of options to choose from, with Joe Marler, Dylan Hartley and Dan Cole have, aside from a nervy opening against Wales, looking the part at the coal face.

The English hooker can be temperamental, but either side of him are two highly effective scrum specimens. Marler has continuously been preferred to Mako Vunipola and Cole's scrummaging was the reason Leinster scrum coach Marco Caputo touted a starting spot for Healy.

"Cole is not very well conditioned – his bogey man seems to be Cian Healy," he said this week. He doesn't like scrummaging against Cian."

Cian Healy during a training session

The task will fall to Jack McGrath, who is perhaps not quite as disciplined as Healy, but is asserting himself admirably at Test level. The St. Mary's man has also been featuring highly on the tackle count.

Mike Ross is repaying Schmidt's faith after losing his place under Matt O'Connor and should things go awry, Marty Moore and Sean Cronin will get the opportunity to showcase their talents from the bench.

With tries at a premium in the championship, penalties could well decide the match and consequently the destination of this year's Six Nations.

All eyes will be on the scrum and referee Craig Joubert's interpretation of the law.

Joe Schmidt v Stuart Lancaster

The two widely respected coaches square off at the Aviva Stadium and the tactical battle will make for fascinating viewing.

Joe Schmidt is rightly lauded for his attention to detail and ability to extract the maximum from his players, but his English counterpart doesn't lag too far behind. He was after all the only coach to get the better of Schmidt in 2014.

Ireland's attacking game plan has been well documented at this point, with Schmidt's almost obsession to eliminate errors and suffocate the opposition with detailed defensive strategies proving too difficult for Italy and France thus far.

Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt ahead of the game

The question is, does Lancaster have the players and strategy to pick holes in an Irish defence that has coughed up a paltry 14 points after more than 160 championship minutes?

The absence of Mike Brown rules out a real attacking threat, but three-try Jonathan Joseph and sprightly looking Anthony Watson in the three-quarter line, and an attack-orientated number 10 in George Ford pulling the strings, they are likely to pose serious questions of the reigning Six Nations champions.

Johnny Sexton v George Ford

The student and the master.

In the green corner the in-form number 10 in world rugby, with 438 international Test points and a victorious Lions tour under his belt.

In the opposite corner will stand a 21 year-old rookie who spent his formative years watching Ronan O'Gara and David Humphrey's hone their skills when his father Mike was involved with Ireland under Eddie O'Sullivan.

Johnny Sexton has expressed his huge disappointment at being ruled out for 12 weeks due to suffering four concussions during 2014

Against France two weeks ago, Sexton made light of a 12-week playing absence in a man-of-the-match performance, while Ford earned similar plaudits on the opening day win in Cardiff where the Bath out-half's inspired play led a second half comeback.

England defence coach Andy Farrell, whose son Owen has fallen behind Ford in the pecking order was quick to pay tribute to the Irish kicking game this week. Little wonder when he was up close and personal with Sexton in Australia with the Lions.

"With the Gaelic football background, Tommy Bowe and Rob Kearney are exceptional in the air; they try a few different tactics where the full-back chases box-kicks from wings just because he is so good in the air," he said.

"It ain’t just kick and hope. They have a good plan".

Having thrived under Schmidt at Leinster where winning champagne rugby was at times almost taken for granted, one imagines he would prefer to replicate a similar expansive game in green, but needs must at Test level and there isn't a player better equipped to vary approach.

Ireland may have their sights set on the back three, especially with Mike Brown out, but Ford and his backline are likely to focus their attentions on midfield. Jared Payne and Robbie Henshaw boast just 10 caps between them and while they have been resolute so far, the Connacht player in particular high on the tackle count, this will be another stern test of their credentials and Ford and co may have a trick up their sleeve.

George Ford in training for England last week. Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images

"Being the best isn’t just about doing great things, it is about making your team better every time you take the field," Jonny Wilkinson, the finest 10 of his generation, said earlier this week.

That is always the case with the 29 year-old Racing Metro player. Time will tell if Ford follows suit.

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