Ireland are heavy favourites with the bookies but I’ve just got a feeling England will go to Dublin and sneak a win this weekend.
Losing in their own back yard in the final round of last year’s Six Nations and watching this group of Ireland players celebrate winning a Grand Slam, after England had their own Grand Slam party ruined by the Irish a year earlier, will have really hurt some of these senior players and they have a point to prove.
It’s a bold call to predict an England victory, given Ireland are yet to lose at home in the Six Nations under Joe Schmidt, but I just think there is enough evidence to suggest that the scales could be slightly tipped in England’s favour.
I like the look of the team Eddie Jones has selected and it’s great to see that he’s stuck with his leading man in Owen Farrell in his proper position and selected the best two centres available outside him.
We’re still highly likely to see George Ford and Farrell on the pitch together at some point but it would have been a backward step to revert to that axis. It’s also great to see Manu Tuilagi back and starting in the Six Nations for the first time for six years.
He’s strung together a lot of games for Leicester now injury-free and, while international rugby and a trip to Dublin is a massive step up, he’s the kind of box office player who can make any stadium rock and England will be hoping he’s finally ready to take that next step on Saturday.
I’m surprised Jones didn’t go back to Mike Brown at full back just for this game because of his ability to deal with the aerial bombardment that is sure to come England’s way and it’ll sound strange to a lot of people because of his form in attack in an England shirt but I wouldn’t have picked Jonny May.
He’s got phenomenal speed and athleticism but has been found wanting positionally of late, especially for Leicester against Ulster, and the likes of Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray will be ready to pounce on any little area of weakness.
Ireland have their own issue in the back three and, whilst Jordan Larmour would have been the automatic selection at full back in Rob Kearney’s absence, I think Schmidt has opted to get what he sees as his best players on the field.
Picking Robbie Henshaw at full back for the first time since his debut in 2013 allows him to get both Bundee Aki and Garry Ringrose in the team as well at centre and Henshaw is such a talented player that I don’t think it’ll affect them too much.
Having both Mako and Billy Vunipola in the team makes such a difference to England and if they can make the most of their power, combined with Tuilagi’s ball-carrying as well, it could give England an edge.
Mako and Kyle Sinckler offer a lot in the loose but there’s no doubt they’ll be targeted at scrum time because that has been far from an area of strength for both of them in the past. Both have been guilty of conceding penalties at the set piece and that’s something England can ill afford to do at the Aviva Stadium.
Ireland beat the All Blacks there and conceded just five penalties in the process and discipline has been one of the hallmarks of their recent success, whereas England were the most ill-disciplined team in last year’s Six Nations.
Having said that, though, with Jerome Garces in charge it’s difficult to predict how things will pan out because the breakdown will be a hugely pivotal area and there won’t be as much communication as the players on both sides are used to.
You can argue the case for both teams and clearly Ireland are favourites because they’re at home and are on a phenomenal run of form at present but I just think it’s the perfect time to play them.
They generally improve significantly as the Six Nations goes on and last year was a case in point as they needed a monster drop goal from Johnny Sexton with the last kick of the match to beat France in Round 1, so I just think England could take advantage of any slow start they might have.
John Mitchell added a bit of spice earlier in the week by saying that Ireland would try to “bore the s**t” out of England and, while that is a dig at their style of play, I don’t think it was premeditated and it isn’t anything that hasn’t been directed at Ireland before by other people.
There’s no way it’ll have any effect on how Ireland approach the game and at the end of the day… do you want to support a team that plays pragmatically and wins a Grand Slam or one that tries to play amazing rugby from everywhere and loses?
There’s a World Cup at the end of this year and I can’t remember too many teams winning World Cup finals playing really extravagant rugby. They are normally dogged affairs that are won by teams that are pragmatic and manage the situation better than the opposition.
Ireland have proven to be masters at that over the course of the past year or so and Joe Schmidt has been head and shoulders above his rivals in that respect as well.
It’s not too long ago that Eddie Jones was outcoaching everyone left, right and centre when England were on their way to a world record-equalling 18 wins in a row but that hasn’t been the case for the past 18 months.
We know Schmidt goes to the nth degree with his preparation and will have a few things up his sleeve but let’s hope Eddie’s had a good Christmas, got his mojo back and come up with a few fresh ideas of his own. If he has, I reckon England can get back on the Six Nations horse on Saturday and start this World Cup year with a bang.
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