Stuart Lancaster’s White Orcs are hosting Ireland on Saturday, and it’s Ireland’s most important match since their last important match, against Wales the previous Sunday. That impressive win has set Ireland up for a tilt at the triple crown and it would be a great feeling if Ireland could lock down silverware halfway through the championship, especially with Italy coming up in round four.
What can we expect from these maginificent rose-clad yeomen? Well, while Stuart Lancaster is building towards 2015 and has embedded a sense of humility in the playing pool, his team are built on pretty traditional English rugby values of solid work ethic and a reasonable dollop of ‘boot and bollock’. They’ve a kicking 10 and a fairly brutish pack of forwards. The backline looks inexperienced, but the two boys in the centres are great big fellows.
They’ve a problem at tighthead prop. It’s almost as if the tighthead crisis baton has been passed over. The awful news about Dan Cole having to take an indefinite hiatus from the game affects them grievously. The next in line looks to be Bath’s David Wilson but he’s never looked like somebody who can be a real force at this level. He’s from the Mike Ross school of natural fitness and he’s just back from injury. Most likely he needs a good few matches to get up to match fitness. The alternative is Henry Thomas, who plays for Sale but is a rookie at this, or any level.
Before we get too excited, he’s probably had more game experience than Marty Moore, but Marty Moore will be on the bench, not potentially starting. It’s a problem. Advantage Ireland in the scrum against England? Wonders will never cease. The Awesome Power of Dylan Hartley and The Awesome Power of Joe Marler round out the front row and both are having good series. There’s depth at hooker where Tom Youngs is a fine player, but The Awesome Power of Mako Vinupola, while potentially explosive in the loose, proved a penalty-expensive replacement against France (and in the Liiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiions series).
England’s second row is big on physical attributes and athleticism. The Awesome Power of Courtney Lawes and The Awesome Power of Joe Launchbury lack nothing in terms of physicality. Do they have the heads for it? When Paul O’Connell unleashes his unique brand of controlled chaos, with no ruck safe from his explosive clearing out, will these two inexperienced forwards be able for it? The Awesome Power of Courtney Lawes has form when it comes to disappearing when the heat is on, but then some day he won’t. We’ve all seen the strength of the Irish maul, and presumably these two chaps will be looking to stop that at source.
In the backrow, there’s another key ingredient missing: Thoroughbred Racehorse Tom Croft. The Awesome Power of Chris Robshaw and The Awesome Power of Tom Wood are fine players, but they’re both similar workers in the six-and-a-half mould. Ideally you’d like one of them on the openside flank and Tom Croft on the other, to bring a real running threat. But he’s not here, and Wood and Robshaw won’t lack for workrate. One or both of them will be tasked with blasting Peter O’Mahony off the breakdown in what will be one of the more fascinating battles of the afternoon. Can O’Mahony have another game where he comes up with three or four penalty turnovers to kill English momentum? If he does, Ireland should go on to win. Or is the least heralded of the Irish backrow, Chris Henry, the key man – he’s certainly started his belated international career well, and is the most natural in his position of the four flankers. The Awesome Power of Billy Vunipola is at No.8, and he’s been influential so far. Like the best 8’s he barrows over the gainline, but crucially he can get his hands free and offload to those who can run lines off him. He’ll need to be policed, but equally, his desire to offload can be a weakness – choke tackle anyone? Where is Stakhanov these days anyway?
Now, the scrum half. Ah yes, our favourite Test Lion in Waiting. We feel Danny Care owes us for making us look like eejits by playing his way out of the touring squad from the moment we declared him the starting test Lion. Well, he’s repaying us and if there was a Lions match tomorrow, himself and Murray would be in the matchday squad. He’s an instinctive player, something of an Eoin Reddan 2.0. If he gets quick ball, he can supply the backline with a steady stream of super-fast passes all day long, as well as providing a lethal sniping threat. There are few better at getting to the ruck at great speed and he has a penchant for quick taps. Owen Farrell isn’t the most attacking fly-half but Care’s speed of distribution is dragging him kicking and screaming to the gainline. But put him on the back-foot and and he’s not the best game-manager. The Irish forwards know what they have to do – get Danny Care. Ireland’s counter-ruck has been exceptional, and if they can muck up the service to Care that will be a huge battle won.
The backline is really inexperienced, but full of good players. Consensus is that this is where Ireland can do some damage, but it won’t be as easy as it looks. The midfield is a case of brains against brawn. Ireland’s two 95-year old centres have seen everything (unless Bamm-Bamm plays, in which case he has hit everything), while Thirty-Six and The Awesome Power of Luther Burrell are big bruising athletes. Twelvetrees is supposedly a classy footballer who can play 10 as well, but we haven’t seen too much of it this campaign, and against Munster he was the fulcrum for a lot of ordinary back play. Little known fact about the Awesome Power of Luther Burrell: he’s never been dropped by the Liiiiiiiiiiiiiions.
The back three we like. Johnny May has gas and if he has his limitations, well, a winger with speed will always cause problems. Jack Nowell looked like a nervous nelly on his debut in Paris and endured a bit of a nightmare, but he was more like his usual self against Scotland. One try in the Boshiership this season is a pretty mediocre return, even for the Most Adventurous Team in England™, but he has a bit of football about him. And the man at the back is the fantastic Mike Brown. Looking at him in full flight and he never looks quite as classy as Ben Foden or Alex Goode, and yet he scores tries, counter-attacks, catches everything, beats defenders and breaks the line so at the end of the day you can’t argue with his selection. He and Rob Kearney will have a right old ding-dong.
Ireland will line out more or less the same again. We expect Donnacha Ryan to replace Tuohy on the bench and the rest to be as you were. It appears that one of Bowe or Fitzgerald would have had a great chance of playing if they featured at the weekend, but they didn’t, so they won’t. It’s a topic that’s being done to death, but we’d have made room for Simon Zebo, but it’s pretty clear by now that the Cork flyer is not in favour and will probably have to wait until the summer tour to press his case at test level. Consensus is that Ireland will look to put it through the backline a bit more than they have done, as England will have a more potent maul defence than Wales or Scotland could muster. It might prove to be wide of the mark, and with the options available out wide, Ireland may stick to the gameplan which has worked well so far. Plus we don’t think the English pack has anything like the granite heart that some of their predecessors had – the likes of Hartley, Lawes and Robshaw have been key forwards in teams humiliated by their Irish counterparts at HEC level in the recent past. Dare we suggest for a third time that the weather might be dreadful??