From Cheltenham to Twickenham or the Aviva for a 6 Nations clash with England has been a highlight of Irish sports fans calendar for decades. This year both are happening in a crowd free environment but that won’t take from any of the interest off the field or the intensity on it.
Both Ireland and England had a difficult start to this years 6 Nations suffering 2 losses and 2 wins so far. England got caught cold in the first round against Scotland but that is probably understandable given how little game time the Saracens players, who provide the backbone of Eddie Jones’ team, had going into the match. Against Wales in Cardiff they conceded 14 points as a result of 2 wrong calls by the match officials which impacted their composure and discipline thereafter but despite that they showed signs of taking the handbrake off in their attacking game which could be a key factor this weekend. Eddie Jones’ team are the 6 nations and Autumn Cup champions and those wins were built on a game plan where they kick more than the opposition and use their power to suffocate their opponents. That style may not be enough to beat the best in the World however and I think the two losses have accelerated Jones’ decision to evolve that game plan into one with better balance and to focus more on their attacking strengths with the ball in hand.
In terms of most recent form, England won against France in what was the best match of the competition so far, both in terms of quality and entertainment. They look to be peaking at the end of the competition and they will present a huge challenge for this Irish team.
Ireland had to win the match twice in Murrayfield which is worrying given the level of experience that is in this squad. Having said that the confidence that they will have got from going on to win that penalty in the final minutes having conceded a try to go level, will be huge.
There are issues in both our attacking game and defence which, when you're about to face a team like England, is not ideal. Team selection on Thursday will be fascinating. I was surprised that Conor Murray was left on the bench for 80 minutes, so it's unlikely he will start. Injuries to Gary Ringrose may open the door for Chris Farrell and Peter O’Mahony to come back in and both are quality players. Starting Ryan Baird at lock and leaving Tadgh Beirne in the back row would be my preferred option to be honest as I think Beirne is going well at number 6 and Baird's power could be crucial.
James Lowe defensively was poor but while he missed a bad tackle for a try, that tackle was one of 25 tackles missed on the day. I think that we have been fortunate that our defence hasn't been exposed as much as it could have been because our set-piece and breakdown work has been so impressive we have dominated the possession stats in the 4 matches thus far, so we have had to defend less than our opponents. James has defensive issues in his game and the step up to international level is difficult. I would expect him to drop out of the team this weekend with Jordan Larmour replacing him.
Attack wise I think we will struggle to get around or through England so we may have to rely on our kicking game to play a territorial based game plan which can work when you have a great set piece and goal kicker as we have.
The news that CJ Stander will be playing his last match for Ireland will add to the emotion for Ireland as the squad will want to give him a fitting send off but unless we see improvement in our defence then I think England could be too good this week for us.