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Three things England must do to ambush Ireland in Dublin

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

So erratic have England continued to be under new head coach Steve Borthwick, they are poised to sign off against Ireland on yet another underwhelming Guinness Six Nations campaign with more losses than wins. That became a dubious trait under the previous incumbent Eddie Jones. The Australian may have won three titles, two in his first two years in charge, but his long reign was also pockmarked by three damaging two-wins-from-five efforts in the last five seasons.

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Borthwick now faces England making that a fourth two-wins-from-five in six seasons unless they can cause what would be considered one of the greatest Six Nations upsets ever.

Ireland, the No1 ranked side in the world and a team that has won 21 of its last 23 matches, are gunning for the Grand Slam at their Dublin home against an England team licking its gaping wounds following last Saturday’s humiliating record 53-10 home loss to France.

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It seems like a mission impossible for Borthwick and co but here are some areas they should focus on in their bid to ambush Ireland and spoil the St Patrick’s weekend title-clinching party:

Being nuisance scrum again
Borthwick has named an England team with just six of the same starters from last March’s fixture between the two teams. Three of the repeat picks, though, consist of the entire front row of Ellis Genge, Jamie George and Kyle Sinckler and they will surely be confident of making a dent to the Irish scrum.

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A year ago, with Frenchman Mathieu Raynal in charge, the penalty count at the set-piece was six-one in favour of the English, a momentum that infuriated Ireland. They claimed the following week that “the referee has come back and said a few decisions went against us when they shouldn’t have”. England were raging, too, Jones suggesting his pack was insufficiently rewarded as no Irish prop was yellow-carded.

“We want to have a powerful scrum and if World Rugby want to have the scrum in the game, they have got to allow the strong scrums to dominate. We are disappointed we didn’t get more out of that,” bemoaned Jones at the time.

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South African Jaco Peyper is this Saturday’s referee and both teams come into it with a 2023 championship record of conceding just three penalties each at the scrum. That suggests Irish stability but England need to get stuck in ASAP to see if they can get the official on their side and frustrate the Andy Farrell scrum just as they did a year ago.

Carrying with greater purpose
Borthwick has painted a picture that France and Ireland, the world’s number two and number one teams, rely heavily on kicking but the curious reality is that England have kicked more in this tournament, 4,117 metres to 4,115 by the French and just 3,782 by the Irish.

Kicking, of course, is a very important part of the game but ball-carrying must surely be a priority if England really are to aggravate the Ireland defence. For instance, it would be so exciting to see Henry Arundell regularly going full tilt out wide, but the return of Manu Tuilagi in the midfield appears timely.

The powerhouse has a W6 L0 record against the Irish and was heavily involved in repeatedly punching the holes that secured the 32-20 win in Dublin that essentially irrevocably fractured the 2019 Joe Schmidt team.

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Alex Dombrandt was credited with 44 metres from seven carries last week, but that involvement came long after the French back row had established dominance and were a long way down the track to securing their record-breaking result. The struggling No8 needs to perform like never before at Test level, while his team in general needs to better look after whatever ball they do get.

A statistical eyesore is England registering 21 knock-ons in championship 2023, flagrancy in contrast to just eight Ireland fumbles. England must also protect their lineout as the Irish have stolen six throws in recent weeks, while they must also guard against the offload, a skill that Ireland is much improved at given their tally of 27 this term compared to 11 in 2022.

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The 16 miserable seconds stat
There has been plenty of fighting talk this week from England amid the gloom of last Saturday’s brutal battering at the hands of the French. Loosehead Genge guaranteed the English would “come out swinging” and that “there is definitely some dog in this team”, a narrative added to by Borthwick at his Thursday night media briefing in Dublin with his reference to “forthright conversations”.

Thing is, they only need to look to last year’s game versus Ireland to see the blueprint for defiance against the odds. Despite losing Charlie Ewels to a red card after just 82 seconds, England were level at 15-all with just 10 minutes remaining before a late power surge sealed the 32-15 Irish triumph.

Where England struggled to better reward that defiance was a brutal inability to secure territory and apply pressure. They spent only a miserable 16 seconds in the Irish 22, relying instead on five Marcus Smith kicks for their points. The moral of that story is they need to stress the Irish defence where it most hurts – as close as possible to the try line.

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