VICTORIES at Twickenham have been as rare as hen’s teeth for Ireland lately.
However, a quick look at the current state of health of both sides would suggest that Andy Farrell’s side are probably never going to get a better chance to take the prized English scalp at England rugby’s HQ.
England are in re-build mode, with the World Cup in France later next year clearly in mind. They have a rookie out-half in Marcus Smith, a centre pairing lacking any X-Factor and a pack lacking the huge ball carriers of yesteryear.
The area where Ireland has a serious advantage over England right now is in their ruck speed, as Ireland’s average ruck speed time in the Six Nations to date is a whole second per ruck faster than what England have managed. In a game of milliseconds, a whole second is a massive difference.
Of course, England will be fully aware of this and will do everything within, and possibly outside, the rules of the game to slow Ireland down in this regard. As, quite simply, if Ireland scrum-half Jamison Gibson-Park gets his average ruck time of 2.9 seconds per ruck on Saturday then Ireland will win.
Almost 70% of Ireland’s rucks take less than three seconds to complete, while only 7.5% become slow and messy by going over the six seconds mark. To put that into perspective, England’s corresponding figures are 53% of rucks under the three seconds mark with a whopping 20% drifting past the six seconds time barrier.
That is much too slow from England. Don’t bother digging out the stopwatch on Saturday, but do keep an eye on this facet of the game. If Ireland are still this much quicker then it should be noticeable to the naked eye.
In theory, England should have one big weapon up their sleeve and that is the fact that they are an incredibly aggressive side in the tackle area.
The ‘Dominant Tackles’ stats may paint a picture in terms of what Ireland can expect in Twickenham, as England’s figure of 18 is right behind France’s 19 total. Given how the French dominated at collision time in the first half in Paris, this will certainly be an area that Andy Farrell will be focusing on improving in the build-up to this tie. It is also worth noting that England are tied with France at the top of the ‘Turnovers Won’ table, so Eddie Jones’ side will bring a similar set up of problems that saw Ireland struggle in Paris.
Should that be the case then you would envisage that this would present Ireland with the platform to dominate territory and possession, and thereby the match itself.
Obviously, the absence of starting loosehead prop Andrew Porter will be a blow in this regard. The Leinster man has turned into a world-class front-rower in the past couple years, and even though Farrell has able deputies in the form of Cian Healy and David Kilcoyne, his absence does mean that Ireland are now down two of their first-choice front row, given that Ronan Kelleher is also out.
A stat that jumps off the page is that Ireland have the highest handling error count, at 46. A lot of these were against Italy a fortnight ago, when Ireland won easily despite a flat, error-ridden performance. Despite this, there is no chance that Ireland would ever have been top of a handling error table under Joe Schmidt, and that is why it should be viewed as a positive, as a team only makes errors when they are trying things, so long may that continue.
It is expected that captain Jonathan Sexton will return to the 10 berth after missing the games against France and Italy. Joey Carbery deputised in his absence, and performed particularly impressively in the defeat in Paris, but as no one really pulled up any trees against 13-man Italy it became an easy call to bring Sexton back in.
Ireland have played England eight times at Twickenham since 2010, with the only win coming in the Grand Slam match on Paddy’s Day in 2018. Wins in the home of English rugby are hard-won, and even in England’s current state of transition that will remain the case, but in saying that, this is a game that Ireland will expect to win.