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Some England players are lucky to be still starting - Andy Goode

By Andy Goode
England's Maro Itoje (Photo by Visionhaus/Getty Images)

There is more than just pride at stake for England in Dublin this weekend and more than a few players will know they need a big game from a personal point of view. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that there are England careers on the line on the basis of the performance because there isn’t necessarily the depth of talent in some positions for these players to just be jettisoned, but several individuals should be looking over their shoulder.


Of course, restoring some pride in the jersey does have to be the starting point the week after you have suffered your third biggest-ever defeat, biggest-ever home defeat, biggest-ever defeat in the 140-year history of the championship… and the list goes on.

However, it’s about more than just fighting and showing that there is “some dog in this team”, as Ellis Genge has vowed to do. These players have another opportunity to show what they can do and some of them have had a few lives already under Steve Borthwick.

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As many as six of the starting pack today have started all five games in this Six Nations and that was the area in which England were so comprehensively taken apart by France and the one where Borthwick is renowned for focusing.

David Ribbans has come in for the injured Ollie Chessum and Jack Willis missed the defeat to Scotland in the opening round, but all the others have been afforded a lot of faith by their head coach and haven’t exactly repaid it.


You are damned if you do and damned if you don’t when you are in the top job and Borthwick would probably be getting even more stick if he had made 26 changes during the tournament, as Warren Gatland has done, but it’s fair to question whether some players still deserve to have the shirt.


A penny for the thoughts of Ben Earl, who is in the squad and has been tearing up trees in the Premiership for the past few years, the free-scoring Sam Simmonds or the somewhat rejuvenated Billy Vunipola, for example.

All of those three players are back rowers and Alex Dombrandt has been one of those most in the firing line this week. It isn’t a last-chance saloon for him by any means but he has had a poor tournament and the spectre of Zach Mercer is looming large.

The Montpellier man is the reigning Top 14 player of the year, is churning out more ridiculous displays this season, and will be eligible for international selection once more the next time England take to the field.

Dombrandt isn’t on his own. Maro Itoje has been disappointing by his standards but there aren’t exactly players queueing up to take the jersey off him when it comes to the second row, and the same goes for Kyle Sinckler. We know all of the above are capable of massive performances on their day and there is no game like an away one against the number one team in the world in which to do it.


Freddie Steward and Jack van Poortvliet are the only backs to have started every game and I would have started Alex Mitchell this week after the impact he has had when coming off the bench in the past few matches, so the latter might be another in need of a big game.

It’s odd that all the unenforced tinkering has taken place behind the scrum when it’s up front that England need to get it right in order to give them a chance to win games but naturally the battle for the fly-half jersey is going to attract the most headlines.

Marcus Smith wasn’t even close to being the reason that England lost, or that they did so in such catastrophic fashion, last week but he finds himself back among the replacements and you have to think Owen Farrell will be like a caged animal waiting to prove he should never have been dropped.


Farrell has Manu Tuilagi and Henry Slade outside him, with the trio starting together for the first time since England wiped the floor with Australia in the 2019 World Cup quarter-final. A lot has changed since then but it’s still an exciting-looking combination.

There was a time earlier this week when it looked like Ireland would be more significantly affected by injuries but the likes of Caelan Doris and Dan Sheehan have been passed fit and if England are to stand any chance of winning, they need to get to Johnny Sexton.

It’s hardly a secret that he is the key to this Ireland side and England have to get him out of his comfort zone, which is where Tuilagi comes in. The centre has won all of the previous six Tests he has played against Ireland.

Clearly, it’s more complicated than just running him down Sexton’s channel every time but there needs to be a fair bit of that and the Ireland captain needs to feel his presence at all times in defence and attack.

If England do manage to get over the gain line through Tuilagi and improved performances from their forwards, then Freddie Steward and Anthony Watson have looked sharp and Henry Arundell could provide the x-factor they have been crying out for. You do have to get them the ball though.


Garry Ringrose would be an enormous loss to any team but the fact that Ireland can start both of the starting centres from the deciding Test of the 2021 Lions tour shows the embarrassment of riches they have at their disposal right now.

Another of the alterations they have made sees Jamison Gibson-Park, who is first choice scrum-half really and gives them more tempo, return and Ryan Baird has been impressive whenever he has been given a chance, so it’s clutching at straws to think Ireland will be below par.

They are setting the standards, it’s St Patrick’s weekend in Dublin and a Grand Slam party is supposed to be taking place. Nobody, least of all me, is expecting England to spoil that after last week but individuals have a point to prove and the collective can show they haven’t fallen as far behind as everyone thinks.


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