By Alan Pearey, Rugby World Deputy Editor
It’s helpful, when unsure which way a match will go, to conduct a man-for-man comparison and see what a composite XV would look like. Adopting this method, the only Englishman I would unhesitatingly include is Manu Tuilagi, which is ironic given the way the Irish have talked of exposing his defence.
Rob Kearney, Tommy Bowe, Johnny Sexton, Cian Healy, Stephen Ferris and Jamie Heaslip are emphatically superior players to their opposite numbers, yet once again, in this unpredictable RBS 6 Nations, everything points to a nail-biting contest.
Ireland have been unusually gobby in advance of the match. Perhaps they’re thinking of their many recent successes in the fixture – just one defeat in the last eight championship meetings – but after dissing the English they’re putting extra pressure on themselves to deliver.
Especially Stephen Ferris, who this week called England “bad losers” and trotted out the baloney about England teams across the age groups being arrogant. The Ulsterman might now attract even closer attention than usual from the English forwards, and they would be wise to do so, for when Ferris gets moving so do the Irish. He is a beast and a one-legged at that, because one of his knees has had all the cartilage removed!
Ferris would probably have played in the 2009 Lions Test team but for injury, and his replacement in South Africa was Tom Croft – his rival on Saturday. It will be an interesting battle, even if they are polar opposites in terms of styles. Both could be match-winners, but Croft’s biggest influence is likely to be in the lineout, where he floats like a butterfly on England’s ball and stings like a bee on opposition ball, helped by the fact he’s so agile he can be lifted by just one player.
Another intriguing subplot is the Tuilagi v Keith Earls, the human wrecking ball against the defensive paperweight. That, at least, is the popular perception, but Earls dealt well with France powerhouse Aurelien Rougerie in the wider channels last weekend. The Munsterman has been doing extra work on his defence lines, with people running at him from different angles, and he may cope with Tuilagi better than many expect.
“He’s worked very hard and he’s in a good place,” says Ireland assistant coach Mark Tainton. “He’s very happy with himself at the moment and his defensive situation.”
If Earls and chums can nullify Tuilagi, then England may have to resort to feeding off Irish errors because they’re still not constructing too much in attack. Despite their three tries in Paris, their trump card remains their defence, with its shades of ‘wolf-pack’ mentality as exemplified by Saracens.
Ireland, with Johnny Sexton spraying his passes and cross-kicking for Bowe, have a far greater attacking threat. Sexton is also kicking his goals and he’s in pole position to wear the Lions No 10 shirt next year in Australia.
Kearney, another of those to spice up this St Patrick’s Day fixture, was magnificent under the high ball against France and if and when Owen Farrell puts the ball up then expect Kearney to deal with it.
Playing for Lancaster
England have a lousy record against Ireland in recent years and failure again would result in successive home defeats in the championship for the first time since 1983. Mathematically, they can still win the title but the flip side is that if France were to win in Cardiff, England could finish fourth – which would fulfil pre-tournament expectations.
However, victory will ramp up the campaign to install interim coach Stuart Lancaster permanently in the hot seat. That is a powerful incentive for the England players, who appear to be backing him en bloc.
Rory Best will become Ireland’s most-capped hooker, with his 59th appearance. He should make it a double celebration by captaining his team to victory – by less than one score.
ENGLAND v IRELAND, TWICKENHAM, SATURDAY 17 MARCH, KICK-OFF 5pm
England: Ben Foden; Chris Ashton, Manu Tuilagi, Brad Barritt, David Strettle; Owen Farrell, Lee Dickson, Alex Corbisiero, Dylan Hartley, Dan Cole, Mouritz Botha, Geoff Parling, Tom Croft, Chris Robshaw (capt), Ben Morgan. Replacements: Lee Mears, Matt Stevens, Tom Palmer, Phil Dowson, Ben Youngs, Charlie Hodgson, Mike Brown.
Ireland: Rob Kearney, Tommy Bowe, Keith Earls, Gordon D’Arcy, Andrew Trimble; Jonathan Sexton, Eoin Reddan; Cian Healy, Rory Best (capt), Mike Ross, Donncha O’Callaghan, Donnacha Ryan, Stephen Ferris, Sean O’Brien, Jamie Heaslip. Replacements: Sean Cronin, Tom Court, Mike McCarthy, Peter O’Mahony, Tomas O’Leary, Ronan O’Gara, Fergus McFadden.
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)