GIVEN the travails of the Welsh team at present, the clash between England and Ireland this afternoon at Twickenham is practically a Pool A decider, and the winner will be contesting the Autumn Nations Cup ‘final’ in a fortnight’s time against the top side from Pool B.
It goes without question that England are going to be a much sterner test than what Wales offered at the Aviva Stadium last Friday.
The Georgian pack has won itself a fearsome reputation down the years, but they simply had no answer for the English maul last Saturday at Twickenham, as England hooker Jamie George helped himself to a hat-trick on the back of England’s irresistible force of a maul.
It is stating the obvious that Ireland’s maul defence will have to be spot on if Ireland are going to prevail today.
Eddie Jones is using this tournament to blood new faces into the England set-up, and against Georgia he awarded debuts to last week’s try-scoring openside Jack Willis and Bristol’s young out-half MaxMalins, while other players such as Worcester centre Ollie Lawrence, Bath hooker Tom Dunn, Harlequins centre Joe Marchant and 21 stone Bath tighthead prop Will Stuart can still count the number of caps they have on one hand.
And while these young players are being integrated into the England squad, Jones is bringing them into a side that is backboned by his leadership core like Owen Farrell, Elliott Daly, Johnny May, Ben Youngs, Billy and Mako Vunipola, Maro Itoje, and hat-trick hero Jamie George.
So, while some of the names might not be recognisable to many viewers this weekend, others will be perhaps too familiar.
This approach of ensuring new squad members are surrounded by experienced heads is pretty much what Andy Farrell is doing too.
Hugo Keenan, James Lowe, Will Connors, and Jamison Gibson-Park, and a few others, have been introduced to the Irish squad lately, but they have been surrounded by Ireland’s core players like Jonathan Sexton, Conor Murray, CJ Stander, Peter O’Mahony, and James Ryan, so they will have been made well aware of what is expected of them.
The above-mentioned Leinster foursome have really hit the ground running with perhaps the biggest surprise being scrum-half Gibson-Park. He has been in Ireland for three years now, but seemed to be behind Luke McGrath at provincial level for most of this time.
The former New Zealand Maori is bang on form at present, however, and it will be interesting to see whether Farrell trusts him over Conor Murray in big games over the course of the next six months.
Saturday seems a positive in this respect, as the safe call would have been to reinstate Murray this weekend to ensure that Ireland’s inexperienced out-halves had Murray to babysit them at nine, but Farrell has kept faith with Gibson-Park to partner his clubmate Ross Byrne at half back.
You would have thought that Connors was made for England with his wonderful chop tackle technique, but Farrell has opted for the experience of Peter O’Mahony from the outset instead.
At full-back Hugo Keenan was solid under the high ball against Wales, but he did not offer much in attack. He certainly deserves a chance to grow into the role though.
It was no surprise that his Leinster team-mate James Lowe took to international rugby like a duck to water, with him scoring a late try to cap his impressive debut. Providing he stays fit he is destined to be a major part of Ireland’s attack right up until the next World Cup.
The big talking point in the lead up to the game will be Andy Farrell’s selection at No. 10 in Sexton’s absence. It shows the folly of consistent conservative selections that Ireland have no real alternative to Sexton this weekend. Sure, the preferred deputy Joey Carbery is currently injured, but he has been for the best part of two years now, and in this time no one has been given a real chance to get up to speed at this level.
Leinster’s Ross Byrne has gotten the nod today over Ulster’s Billy Burns, which means a potential make or break game for him. While he has performed in Leinster’s blue, he has yet to do so for Ireland, with him having a nightmare in his one big opportunity to date, the World Cup warm-up tie at this very stadium just 15 months ago, when England utterly destroyed Ireland 57-15.
The display ended up costing Byrne a place in the squad travelling to Japan. You would think that a similar experience this time around would ensure that Byrne would be consigned to the scrap heap from an Ireland perspective, so no pressure on the Leinster man.