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View From Across The Water - England's Powerful Forwards Will Be Ireland's Downfall

View From Across The Water - England's Powerful Forwards Will Be Ireland's Downfall
By Conor O'Leary
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Ahead of this weekend's pivotal Ireland vs England clash at the Aviva Stadium, Balls.ie spoke to rugby journalist Alex Shaw to get an English perspective on the clash and ask him for his thoughts on the game. Alex writes about rugby and NFL for Toonari Post, Talking Rugby Union, and the Metro UK.

Ireland v England Memories

My defining memory of Ireland vs England games was when Martin Johnson refused to move himself and the rest of the England team for then-President Mary McAleese ahead of the 2003 Six Nations Grand Slam decider at Lansdowne Road.

I was in the stands that day, alongside the understandably outraged Irish branch of my family, but from an English perspective it was an almost Churchillian moment and as a 13-year-old at the time, the unsavoury nature of the incident was lost on me. Instead, I was infused with pride for the team and Johnson, and I think that moment has to be described as defining footstep towards that team going on to lift the World Cup in Sydney later that year. From an English perspective, the annual meeting with Ireland doesn’t quite carry the same ‘bite’ as the meetings with France or Wales, so it was an interesting change of pace.

England’s Six Nations So Far

England’s campaign has been good so far, but there is certainly a lot of room for improvement. The half-back and midfield combinations have been firing, which makes for a pleasant change, whilst the set-piece has been traditionally strong. Conversely, England’s defence hasn’t been up to scratch at times, but had you offered Stuart Lancaster at the outset of the tournament two wins from two and a solid points difference heading into Round 3, I’m sure he would have bitten your hand off.

New English Players To Watch

The pack, despite injuries, remains a fairly known quantity, although lock George Kruis will be winning only his sixth international cap. For those who don’t follow the Aviva Premiership or haven’t had the opportunity to see him with Saracens in the European Rugby Champions Cup, Kruis is lineout savant, and despite a slightly different build, plays a role very similar to that of Devin Toner.

Amongst the backs, the Bath pair of Anthony Watson and Jonathan Joseph will be playing Ireland for the first time in their careers and both players are in fine form heading into the game. Again, for those who have not had an opportunity to see either player, Joseph is an elusive outside centre capable of making tacklers miss, whilst Watson is speedster on the wing, with a nice step and deceptive strength.

The Loss Of Mike Brown

I may be alone in those thoughts, but I don’t necessarily think Mike Brown’s absence is the disadvantage for England that some are making it out to be. With Jonathan Sexton’s pinpoint tactical kicking and the abundance of current and former full-backs in the Irish back line, there’s no doubt the kicking game is an area Ireland will look to dominate, but this should suit Alex Goode, Brown’s replacement, more than it would England’s incumbent.

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He is unlikely to make the same impact with ball in hand that Brown would, whilst his defence at the highest level has also been called into question after his role in England’s defeat to France in last year’s Six Nations, but if it’s a case of horses for courses, his presence at 15 may be the silver lining to Brown’s injury that England need in Dublin.

England’s strengths

The midfield of Luther Burrell and Jonathan Joseph has gone for England so far, but their greatest strength remains the set-piece. Joe Marler has taken apart both Samson Lee and Martin Castrogiovanni this Six Nations; whilst Dan Cole has shown none of the expected rust after his recent injuries, scrummaging as destructively as ever. The lineout has also been functioning really well, even with Dylan Hartley’s favoured targets of Courtney Lawes, Joe Launchbury and Tom Wood all out injured. Though the Irish lineout has been going well, I would expect England to have a significant advantage at the scrum, and just shade the overall set-piece battle.

Ireland’s strengths

In my opinion Ireland don’t have any advantage as stark as England’s in the scrum, but I do expect them to be better both defensively and at the breakdown. I initially called out Robbie Henshaw’s inclusion at 12, insisting he would be better suited at 13, but his defensive work at the position is one of the most unheralded stories (east of the Irish sea) not only in the Six Nations, but also going back to the autumn internationals. The prowess of both Peter O’Mahony and Sean O’Brien at the breakdown should also help Ireland to an advantage there. England’s defence will be better organised than when they went out to rack up a score against Italy, and the inclusion of James Haskell has helped England succeed at the breakdown significantly, but both are still areas I expect Ireland to come out on top in.

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Implications Of The Game

The game is a potential Grand Slam decider, there’s no escaping from that fact. If England win, they then face Scotland and France both at Twickenham, which with all due respect to those sides, should be two wins for England. Ireland’s route is a little harder should they win, facing away trips to both Cardiff and Edinburgh to finish, but the momentum created from such an important win would certainly help see them home.

Should England and Ireland both win their World Cup groups, something which current form suggests is entirely plausible, they face a potential semi-final meeting, should they see off their quarter-final opponents. That won’t be in the mind of any of the 30 players that take to the Aviva pitch this weekend, but should that scenario actually unfold later this year, there’s no doubt the winner of this game will have a big mental advantage.

Prediction

It’s certainly the toughest Six Nations game to call so far this season. Rather uncharacteristically, England seem to be the better attacking side at the moment, whilst Ireland’s defence is doing a fantastic job and much praise should go to defence coach Les Kiss. I expect Ireland to come out and try play a territory game and England’s set-piece will need to be at its very best to help counter that. That set-piece – and a new found mettle from captain Chris Robshaw – could be enough to see England sneak it.

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I’m going England by 3, but they cannot afford to start as slowly as they did against Wales or Italy, as Ireland will punish them for that.

 

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