By Alan Dymock
The England team has been unveiled for a Dublin dust-up with the winner of this Sunday showdown already being touted as 6 Nations champions.
Whether or not this is true, Stuart Lancaster and his selectors have picked the same backline that was able to slash and bash their way past their Scottish counterparts last week as well as making one positional change in the back row after Ben Morgan was declared unfit for duty.
With Tom Wood moving to No 8 from the blindside, where he played against Scotland, the versatile James Haskell comes on to the flank. This means that with captain Chris Robshaw, again leading from the front, England have an all-action back row, albeit one lacking in the deftness to create scores through inventiveness.
Where this unit excels is that all of them are comfortable with the ball falling to them inches from a would-be tackler, and all of them refuse to shirk responsibilities when chasing on the drift defence. They may not unpick locks in attack, or step around a speedster as nimble as Shane Williams on spring loaded stilts, but they will grit their teeth, knuckle down and continue trundling until they are rid of Irish choke tacklers.
This is why the exciting but inexperienced Billy Vunipola enjoys time on the training paddock, but is not allowed on the bench instead of Thomas Waldrom. The young Wasp would take a step back, like a nervous triple jumper, before driving himself forward and assuming his heft and power would burst through would-be tacklers.
The Irish are wily at the breakdown, but it is in the collision area that they can use enemy’s strengths against them. They come out of the line strongly and target the knees or the ball. Lancaster does not want to play into Irish hands and if that means a back row must be greater than the sum of its parts in order to slowly build a foothold, then so be it. He has a scrum-half, full-back and inside-centre that he trusts implicitly to make that half gap, anyway.
While the back row selection may not pay dividends in the first 20 minutes, the England coaches are pragmatists. If the game needs a bundle of dynamite planted in the middle of the park they can pull Manu Tuilagi into play and even draft Courtney Lawes in to work in tandem with Joe Launchbury. It’s a potential second-row pairing that has England fans salivating.
This is a team looking increasingly sure-footed. With Ireland being tipped to challenge for the title, Lancaster will not be in the mood to gamble or upset any hard earned team harmony.
England starting XV: Alex Goode (Saracens); Chris Ashton (Saracens), Brad Barritt (Saracens), Billy Twelvetrees (Gloucester), Mike Brown (Harlequins) ; Owen Farrell (Saracens), Ben Youngs (Leicester Tigers); Joe Marler (Harlequins), Tom Youngs (Leicester Tigers), Dan Cole (Leicester Tigers), Joe Launchbury (London Wasps), Geoff Parling (Leicester Tigers), James Haskell (London Wasps), Chris Robshaw (Harlequins), Tom Wood (Northampton Saints).
Replacements: Dylan Hartley (Northampton Saints), David Wilson (Bath), Mako Vunipola (Saracens), Courtney Lawes (Northampton Saints), Thomas Waldrom (Leicester Tigers), Danny Care (Harlequins), Toby Flood (Leicester Tigers), Manu Tuilagi (Leicester Tigers).