Ireland and England have found their feet after a poor start to the championship. A runners-up spot is the potential consolation prize for Saturday's victors in Dublin
Six Nations Ireland v England preview
There’s an Amharic phrase, “When many threads come together, they can tie up a lion”, that has been used about the strategy of Ethiopian runners.
The England rugby team might identify with it because after some pretty stodgy rugby over the past six months, we saw forwards and backs unite in delightful liberation during last weekend’s 23-20 Six Nations win against France. Run and support, pass and offload. It’s why children take up the sport and what they still want to do once grown up.
Ireland’s 27-24 to-and-fro win in Scotland the next day was no less entertaining. The Irish bossed the breakdown and the collisions, and played havoc with what had been an efficient Scottish lineout, stealing six throws. Johnny Sexton is in a purple patch off the tee, not missing in training or matches, and he delivered the winning kick with time almost up.
So Saturday’s encounter promises much, even though recent meetings have often been low-scoring affairs. Both teams can still finish second in the championship, or as low as fifth. Ireland have only finished in the bottom half twice in the Six Nations era, in 2008 and 2013.
Adding fuel to Ireland’s fire at the Aviva Stadium will be a desire to send CJ Stander off in style. The Munster No 8 is set to play his 51st and final Ireland match having announced his decision to retire in the summer. He was the top ball-carrier in the 2017, 2018 and 2020 championships and leads again this year by some margin, with 64 leg-pumping runs.
Incidentally, in 2016 the South African-born Stander was sent off against the Springboks for a dangerous challenge on Pat Lambie. The referee in Cape Town that day? Mathieu Raynal, the man with the whistle this weekend.
In Tadhg Beirne, Iain Henderson and Stander, Ireland have the leading turnover practitioners in the tournament. Beirne has been sensational and cannot fail to make the Lions squad if current form means anything at all. There is no James Ryan, however, following his HIA in Edinburgh and that could prove a significant loss.
Last year England had a clear physical edge in the fixture, winning 24-12 in the Six Nations and 18-7 in the Autumn Nations Cup. Ireland have Beirne but England have Tom Curry, bigged up this week by forwards coach Matt Proudfoot as “another McCaw” in the making.
The Irish are dominating the Guinness Pro14, with Leinster and Munster through to this month’s final. They are used to throwing their weight around domestically. A Test against England is an entirely different scenario. As BBC pundit Jamie Heaslip said: “Ireland have been on the receiving end of a couple of dust-ups against England. They have to front up.”
It’s a tough one to call. Certainly the remarkable Sexton is likely to punish English indiscipline with three-pointers should it persist. And you wonder what coach Paul O’Connell might have up his sleeve to disrupt the English lineout.
But England seem to have rediscovered some attacking brio. They’re not like the team that rolled Australia and New Zealand over at the 2019 World Cup. But they’re closer to that than the side that went down without a whimper to Scotland at the start of the championship.
An away victory would give England three Six Nations wins in a row against Ireland for the first time since 2012-2014. It will be tight but we think they will achieve it.
What’s the big team news?
Ireland have rung the changes with no fewer than six players coming into the XV that started in round four at Murrayfield.
Bundee Aki replaces the injured Garry Ringrose (ankle) in midfield, Robbie Henshaw moving one position out. And wing Jacob Stockdale ousts James Lowe, whose frustrating championship included a costly missed tackle on Huw Jones last Sunday.
Scrum-half Conor Murray replaces Jamison Gibson Park, who played the full 80 last week because Murray, although named as a replacement, wasn’t quite ready following a hamstring injury.
Up front, loosehead Dave Kilcoyne, openside Josh van der Flier and No 8 Jack Conan all get a start. Will Connors (knee) is unavailable while the absence of Ryan (head) has led Andy Farrell to shift Beirne to second-row and use Stander at six as a second ball-carrier.
Peter O’Mahony, a masterful lineout operator now back from suspension, must content himself with a place on the bench.
There’s only one change to the England side that beat France. Saracens’ Elliot Daly starts at outside-centre after Henry Slade was ruled out with a calf injury.
It will be only the second time in 55 Tests that full-back Daly has worn 13, his previous start in the position coming against South Africa in 2016. However, he has recent experience defending there at club level in the Champions Cup.
Eddie Jones put his surprise decision down to the aerial challenge he anticipates from Ireland, preferring Daly’s high-ball skills to those of Ollie Lawrence and Joe Marchant, who are both named on the bench.
Bristol’s Max Malins, very much part of the Lions conversation, retains the full-back jersey that he wore for the first time internationally last weekend.
What have the two camps said?
Ireland head coach Andy Farrell: “We’ve got to have courage to go out there and win the game and the statement that we want to make, to ourselves first and foremost.
“The mental state of the squad is strong. They’re very buoyant, in a determined mood. They know this is the last game of the competition, where we get a chance to put our best performance out there for 80 minutes. That’s something we haven’t quite achieved yet.”
On the tournament: “It’s been a great campaign for a neutral because nobody quite knows who’s going to win what game. I suppose that’s what people would want.
“As far as we’re concerned, there’s a couple of games that got away from us in the end but we’re in a determined mood to finish off this campaign well.”
On England picking Elliot Daly at 13: “I don’t think it will change that much. Elliot will just be himself. He always flows into that channel anyway.
“He started out as nothing but a 13, so he’s very experienced in that regard. They’re comfortable in putting Elliot there because he’s able to use his left foot, and that’s what Henry Slade used to do as well.”
England head coach Eddie Jones: “This is our most important game of the tournament and we want to finish well. We’re anticipating a hard, tough game against Ireland and we’ve picked this team to cope with that.
“We want to take it to Ireland physically and play the rugby we want to play. They’ve been progressing nicely and we’ve been watching their progress closely.
“Their lineout, their scrums, both those areas have been impressive. They have good carriers and are good defensively around the ruck. Their forward play has been exceptional and it’s coinciding with a higher kicking game that has seen them play some good rugby.”
England wing Jonny May: “Our set-piece and defence was brilliant (in 2020), we won games, but our attack wasn’t quite right. That got swept under the rug because we were winning.
“My line in the sand (after the Scotland defeat) was that our attack was nowhere near where it needs to be. So we got hold of it as players and we’ve been taking step forward after step forward ever since. We need to be on it this week, and we are.”
Any interesting statistics?
* Ireland lead England 11-10 in their 21 Six Nations meetings (since 2000). Should they win on Saturday, it will be their 50th Test victory against the men in white
* The team leading at half-time has never failed to win in championship games between the two. Ireland won on the only occasion when the scores were level at the break (14-13 in 2009)
* Owen Farrell is the top point-scorer in this year’s Six Nations (44). Six points would take him to 500 in the championship overall
* Anthony Watson is the joint top try-scorer with four (alongside Louis Rees-Zammit). He’s now eighth in England’s top ten all-time try-scorers, level with Josh Lewsey (22 tries)
* England have the best lineout (93%) and scrum (95%) success rate in the 2021 Six Nations
* Ireland have stolen twice as many opposition lineouts (eight) as any other side. But they are without James Ryan, who leads that individual category
* Tadhg Beirne (137) and Maro Itoje (134) have hit the most rucks in this Six Nations
* Tom Curry has been the biggest nuisance at defensive rucks, disrupting 12 opposition rucks so far. He has made six dominant tackles – more than any other player
* Ireland boast the best ruck success rate in this year’s Six Nations (97%). They and Italy are the only teams with an average ruck speed under three seconds
* Johnny Sexton has slotted 17 of his 18 kicks at goal – the best success rate (94%) of any player to attempt at least three place kicks
* Luke Cowan-Dickie has landed all 22 of his lineout throws in the tournament – the only 100% success rate for any hooker attempting ten or more throws
* Three players have gained at least 250 metres with ball in hand in this year’s tournament – and two play in this game: Elliot Daly (265) and Jonny May (253). The other, James Lowe (335), has been dropped
* An England win would inflict back-to-home championship home defeats on Ireland for only the second time. The only time that has happened was when Ireland lost to Scotland at Croke Park (2010) and France at the Aviva Stadium (2011)
* Jonny May is England’s highest try-scorer since Eddie Jones took charge at the start of 2016. The Gloucester wing has scored 26 Test tries in that time
* Ireland have been awarded the most penalties on average this year (12.3) and conceded the second fewest (8.8). England have conceded the most (13.3) and been awarded the fewest (8.5)
What are the odds?
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What time does it kick off and is it on TV?
Ireland v England, Saturday 20 March, Aviva Stadium (4.45pm).
The match will be broadcast live on ITV, with radio commentary on BBC Radio 5 and BBC Radio Ulster. Highlights of all three matches from the championship’s final day will be shown on ITV4 at 8pm on Sunday.
The referee is Frenchman Mathieu Raynal, supported by Scotland’s Mike Adamson and Welshman Craig Evans with the flags. The TMO is Romain Poite of France.
Related content: Meet referee Mathieu Raynal
What are the line-ups?
Ireland: Hugo Keenan; Keith Earls, Robbie Henshaw, Bundee Aki, Jacob Stockdale; Jonathan Sexton (capt), Conor Murray; Dave Kilcoyne, Rob Herring, Tadhg Furlong, Iain Henderson, Tadhg Beirne, CJ Stander, Josh van der Flier, Jack Conan.
Replacements: 16 Ronan Kelleher, 17 Cian Healy, 18 Andrew Porter, 19 Ryan Baird, 20 Peter O’Mahony, 21 Jamison Gibson Park, 22 Billy Burns, 23 Jordan Larmour.
England: Max Malins; Anthony Watson, Elliot Daly, Owen Farrell (capt), Jonny May; George Ford, Ben Youngs; Mako Vunipola, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Kyle Sinckler, Maro Itoje, Charlie Ewels, Mark Wilson, Tom Curry, Billy Vunipola.
Replacements: 16 Jamie George, 17 Ellis Genge, 18 Will Stuart, 19 Jonny Hill, 20 Ben Earl, 21 Dan Robson, 22 Ollie Lawrence, 23 Joe Marchant.