The mood around Irish rugby remains suitably cagey. Only three weeks ago, it was pronounced that the post-World Cup malaise remained after Ireland stumbled their way to victory over Scotland.
Seven days later they produced their best performance since 2018 in defeating a spirited but under-strength Welsh side. All told, it would be fair to say that the mood heading into Sunday’s Six Nations encounter with England is hopeful rather than expectant.
To be fair to the English, their respective oppostion get incredibly excited each time an opportunity comes around to play them at anything. The ever-popular anyone but England bandwagon moves to southwest London for a contest that will have a significant bearing on the outcome of this year’s tournament.
The build-up to Sunday’s contest game has certainly not been short on sub-plots. The righteous rugby brigade are upset that Eddie Jones antics may be fueling the perceived vitriol amonst supporters, not for one moment considering that the wider world, and booze, may have an impact on the sometimes fraught atmospheres.
The more prominent story, notwithstanding how overplayed it may be, is the fact that father and son, and former tammates, Andy and Owen Farrell, will be in opposite dressing rooms come Sunday. It’s a totally unnatural scenario, though given the almost unparalleled competitiveness of both men, perhaps just further motivation to get one over for each man.
More worryingly, Andy Farrell, brought Bono into camp this week. You’d have to wonder what insight Bono could give the team in the build up to Twickenham? What can a rugby team, built on selflessness, glean from an egomaniac with a messiah complex? Although, who knows, perhaps they’ll think of Bono and his attempts to describe what ‘Irishness’ is as they barrel into contact with Maro Itoje.
While we all focused on Ireland’s World Cup hangover, England had to focus on a far more pronounced one. Being pummelled by New Zealand in the quarter final is one thing but not many expected Ireland to come out the right of that result including, by their body language, the Irish players.
England, meanwhile, having dislodged the reigning world champions with a brilliant performance had pundits – English ones mind you – assessing, not whether England would win the final, but more specifically by how much.
England, who on so many occasions down the years appeared to relish the role of bully, met their nemesis in the rugby version of Nelson Munz, South Africa.
Admittedly, England did lose Kyle Sinckler early, and their scrum got punished from thereon. Then, with victory almost certain, South Africa turned on the style with a wonderful team try from Makazole Mapimpi complemented by a beautiful individual effort by the world’s most entertaining player, Cheslin Kolbe.
So, in the space of just seven days England went quite literally from the top to an afterthought. This team has rarely occupied the middle ground under Eddie Jones. It’s either record breaking runs and Grand Slams or punishing defeats to the “scummy Irish” or that “little shit place” known as Wales.
We should remember, however, that while Ireland have enjoyed home comforts so far is this year’s tournament, this will be England’s first appearance of the season at Twickenham.
Of course, the last time either team set foot here, England subjected the Irish to an embarassing 80 minutes which in hindsight was a fairly decent reflection of where each team stood at the time. Six months down the road, however, and the game has changed somewhat.
While Ireland have regathered – Joe Schmidt should be credited with leaving them in pretty decent shape – England made their way into Paris under the usual cloud of Jones chutzpah, an attribute that is usually lauded in victory and derided in defeat.
England rarely brought whatever Jones was promising and, given that the French feed almost pathologically off emotion, Jones’s words seemed a misstep, even with foresight.
Like him or not, Jones is an intriguing character, almost the complete opposite of Andy Farrell in the way he approaches his dealings with the media. Maybe it’s a cultural thing – Farrell is a humble, no-nonsense Northener and Jones, well, he’s Australian.
Given the unique circumstances the Farrells find themselves in this week, the Irish head coach will be quietly delighted that Jones has once more drawn the attention to himself after his bizarre comments to an English reporter on Thursday.
Jones team selction will have raised just as many eyebrows. First, he has chosen to drop Lewis Ludlam and Willi Heinz following the hard-fought victory in Murrayfield. Perhaps Ben Youngs should never have been dropped in the first place, while Courtney Lawes comes back, presumably to give England further line out options on a day when Irish hooker, Rob Herring, will likely face the gratest challenge of his career to date.
In an unusual selection, Jones has selected out an out second centre, Jonathan Joseph, on the wing, in a move that is sure to baffle many. It was only this time last year that England pulled an out of position, Robbie Henshaw, all over the field so it seems strange that Jones would opt for a non-specialist in the back three.
What he does have in the squad, in addition to a six-two split on the bench, is loads of second rows. However, all the forwards in the world won’t help is any of the English outside backs go down.
England, it is clear, intend on overrunning Ireland through sheer physicality, this gameplan ably assisted by the return of Ireland’s nemesis, Manu Tuilagi.
England are extremely difficult to repel when their big bodies start pouring forward, particularly in Twickenham. However, they’ll need good primary possession to effect this plan and while Iain Henderson’s absence for personal reasons of a happy nature denies Ireland a ball carrier, it means the introduction of Ireland’s most reliable ball winner at the lineout, Devin Toner. Ultan Dillane’s presence on the banch should counter some of the English bulk in the final quarter.
Robbie Henshaw showed flashes of attacking brilliance against Wales before a head knock forced him off and in terms of centre combinations, his and Bundee Aki’s is comfortably the most developed. Aki and Tuilagi will clash, and everyone looks forward to it, but it will be moreinteresting to see if the Irish midfield can find any chinks in the channel between Farrell and George Ford, the latter of whom is coming under increased scrutiny of late from the English media.
If Ireland can quieten the crowd early, and this may require little more than gaining parity, you’d be confident that they can turn thr tables on England from a year ago and put Joseph and Elliott Daly in some uncomfortable defensive positions.
Andrew Conway is in the form of his life, Jordan Larmour the potential to unlock a defence at any time while you suspect Jacob Stockdale is one moment away from returning to the form of 2018.
Of course, all of this will be redunant if Ireland can’t take England on up front but C.J. Stander and Tadhg Furlong look to be back to their best, while the bench, including a highly motivated Caelan Doris, has more than enough dynamism to match England’s power game late on.
Win tomorrow and a Grand Slam that not one Irish person contemplated before the season began is a real possibility.
England are a diferent animal at home but still a meeker one without the Vunipolas. They do, however, have the greatest forward depth in world rugby so Ireland won’t view Tom Curry’s presence at number eight as a weakness, more an oddity of selection on Jones’ part.
Start strong, score at least three tries and weather the inevitable storm. These are the not so simple requirements for an Irish victory. Like Wilder in Las Vegas, Ireland to land the knockout blow late.
SUS Prediction – Ireland by 3
Tips – Ireland to win @ 12/5
Ireland to win and Andrew Conway to score a try @ 13/2