Ireland v England: Johnny Sexton returns as Andy Farrell names his team

Cork's Peter O'Mahony will wear the number six jersey at Twickenham
Ireland v England: Johnny Sexton returns as Andy Farrell names his team

Ireland's Peter O'Mahony attempts to touch the ball down against England. Picture: INPHO/Dan Sheridan

HISTORY should inform us that it is a risky business to head to Twickenham expecting an Irish victory but given the recent performances of both Ireland and England that is exactly what most Irish fans will be doing this Saturday.

Eddie Jones is clearly attempting to recreate an English team with a fresh, new identity - an identity that is not centred around the great Saracens contingent of yesteryear.

Owen Farrell and the Vunipola brothers were the mainstays of England for years, but England are moving on without them now. It would appear that Manu Tuilagi remains a major part of Jones’ plans going forward, but you have to question the wisdom of building a team around a 30-year-old centre who has missed a grand total of 79 England matches due to injury issues since his debut back in 2011, including 51 of the 72 games played since Jones took charge of England back in 2015.

Without Tuilagi the England backline looks like a blunt instrument, however, with neither of the centre pairing of Henry Slade or Elliot Daly likely to give the Irish backline many sleepless nights in the run-up to the Twickenham clash.

Nine of Jones’ 26 man training squad for the Ireland game have 10 caps or fewer, with the likes of Marcus Smith and Freddie Steward, both on only eight caps, number eight Alex Dombrandt, on seven caps, and the uncapped Wasps back-rower Alfie Barbeary clearly being players that Jones is going to be leaning on heavily in the lead up to the World Cup late next year.

You sense that Jones will get a lot of this right and that come that tournament in France these players will be up to the speed of international rugby and that the growing pains that these individuals suffer right now will all be worth it in the long run.

Ireland are much further down the road in terms of their development than England, and this reason alone is why Ireland should win on Saturday.

If England were to win, in such an early stage in their own transitional phase then this would actually be quite alarming for Andy Farrell, as he has really put all his eggs in the basket that is the Leinster based side that he has unleashed in the past twelve months. A loss to this England team would certainly have to be viewed as a huge setback.

England’s title hopes were effectively written off on the opening weekend when they lost 20-17 to Scotland at Murrayfield, but they will know that two unlikely wins over Ireland, this weekend, and France, next weekend, could propel them to an improbable championship win. Deep down you expect that England fancy their chances of achieving this, so it is up to Ireland to quench that prospect on Saturday.

Johnny Sexton supported by team-mates James Ryan, Tadhg Furlong and Devin Toner is tackled by Tom Curry of England during the Guinness Six Nations Rugby Championship match at Twickenham. Picture: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Johnny Sexton supported by team-mates James Ryan, Tadhg Furlong and Devin Toner is tackled by Tom Curry of England during the Guinness Six Nations Rugby Championship match at Twickenham. Picture: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

The media will be clamouring to compare the respective merits of both out-halves, with it being a battle between an ultra-talented eight-times capped 23-year-old who is just starting out in his international career and a 37-year-old veteran with 13 years of international experience and 109 Test caps behind him. The Marcus Smith v Johnny Sexton match-up will certainly be interesting, but the winning and the losing of this game could well be down to how well England disrupt Ireland’s blistering ruck speed.

In the first three rounds of this Six Nations competition Ireland had by far and away the quickest average ruck speed of all the nations, with an average of 2.8 seconds per ruck. Eddie Jones will have targeted this in the past fortnight. If England are to trouble Ireland then they will have to seriously slow down the ball available to Ireland scrum-half Jamison Gibson-Park.

Ireland enjoyed an impressive 32-18 victory over England almost a year ago, a result which kick-started the wonderful run of form that was only blighted by the loss in Paris.

Before that win at the Aviva Stadium Ireland had lost four games in a row against England, with the feature of some of these defeats being how England cleverly exploited Ireland’s defensive deficiencies, such as the positioning of Robbie Henshaw at full-back, and the questionable positional sense of the likes of Jacob Stockdale and James Lowe.

We can certainly expect Lowe and Mack Hansen to have their defensive prowess tested by some clever English probing on Saturday evening. It would not be a great surprise for a reputation, or two, to be tarnished in this respect come the final whistle.

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