Rugby, Rugby Union, Six Nations, Six Nations 2019

Six Nations 2019 – Preview: Ireland v England

While developing the principles of modern physics, Isaac Newton hardly considered that sports writers and fans would still be arguing over the validity of momentum more than 300 years later. Yet, still some people dismiss sports writing as fluff. 

In 2012, Grantland’s Bill Barnwell valiantly attempted to dismiss the relevance of momentum in sport but we’re firmly of the belief that this abstract concept does exist. Just look at the New England Patriots unprecedented comeback in Superbowl 51, the English rugby team’s extraordinary 2003 en route to World Cup success or the incredible roll that Irish superstar, Becky Lynch, is currently on in the WWE where she’s set to become the first woman to ever headline Wrestlemania next month. Incidentally, Lynch’s extraordinary rise is such a male dominated industry is a huge story in itself and no doubt someone will latch on to it next month.

Momentum does exist in sport, though, rather than in Newtonian terms, it comes about as a result of the accumulation of ideal conditions at an opportune time. What can be said with near certainty – while talking about a tenuous idea – is that momentum and confidence are inseparable. Joe Schmidt’s Irish side have won 17 of their last 18 tests – the only defeat coming with Jonathan Sexton starting on the bench – and having beaten all the top tier nations since 2017, there is a quiet but absolute confidence about this side. Confidence without end product is merely arrogance but Ireland have continued to walk the walk while the Irish media increasingly talks the talk.

However, two schools of thought existed as the 2019 Six Nations approached. The first is that success this spring isn’t all that important as Joe Schmidt will really be looking to try out as many combinations as possible so that all 31 players will be ready to step in at a moment’s notice in Japan, if necessary. The alternative states that the Irish international team has never been on such a role and that momentum is lost far more quickly than it’s garnered.

We’re inclined to side with the latter approach as you can deduce that Joe Schmidt has spent the last four years preparing for a nightmare scenario that faced his side in Cardiff in October 2015 when one third of his starting side was lost to injury and suspension. Schmidt has analysed every professional player in Ireland at this stage and seen fit to hand out close to 40 new caps since that defeat to Argentina.

The Six Nations is the annual centre piece of rugby in this part of the world and it would be remiss to suggest that it could be treated like a warm up competition – akin to the National Hurling and Football leagues – as that’s what November and the summer are for. Certainly, given the rigours of the tournament and the scheduling the squad will rotate, most likely in Rome, but Ireland and moreover the Irish public can’t overlook the importance of maintaining the aura around this side.

While it may appear that this Irish side has crescendoed a year earlier that England in 2003, the latter’s success was surely not by design as they had developed a unique formula for tripping on their own laces at the final hurdle in three previous quests for a Grand Slam. Prior to their World Cup victory, England came out the right side of some incredible contests in 2002/2003 – their extraordinary defensive effort in Dunedin and destruction of Ireland in the Grand Slam decider come to mind.

You would imagine that Ireland want to face into the summer with another tournament victory, or Grand Slam, under their belt, at the expense of fielding their back up half-backs in Cardiff on the final weekend. In any event given the level of attrition – witness Ireland’s incredibly deep second row options getting culled in the space of four hours – Schmidt will have handed out opportunities across the board by the time St Patrick’s Day arrives.

Having said all this, it would be remiss to suggest that Robbie Henshaw’s selection at 15 hasn’t come somewhat from left field. After Rob Kearney’s shaky performance last Friday night it doesn’t come as a huge surprise that Schmidt is exploring his alternatives and with Bundee Aki consistently excellent throughout the last 12 months, it’s clear he’s choosing the route of getting your best players on the field.  While Henshaw came to the fore as a full back and it’s widely reported as his favourite position, Will Addison and, particularly, Jordan Larmour may be a little miffed but it’d take a fool to question Schmidt’s decision making at this stage.

While France did the biggest France possible last night in Paris there is no question that the tie of the round takes place on Lansdowne Road this evening. Perhaps it’s just a sign of the clickbait times we live in but the Irish media has spent the last week or so deriding Eddie Jones for his devious attempts to manipulate the media while themselves coming across as arrogant and somewhat dismissive of the English threat. Sadly, the arbitrary ‘how many of their players would make our team’ discussion seems to have already decided the game in Ireland’s favour.

Had the English taken this approach in years gone by – no doubt they did – we’d be pretty worked up by it but it’s probably unfair to assume that public opinion is accurately reflected by what’s printed or spoken about online. And, given the challenge approaching in the autumn, it may just be that this Irish squad will have to accept the intense scrutiny usually reserved for soccer teams.

Brave little England start this tournament imbued a fair amount of quiet confidence, largely due to the form and fitness of Maro Itoje and the Vunipola brothers, and, the return of Manu Tuilagi. England’s midfield axis is enthralling on paper but Henry Slade hasn’t delivered yet for England – largely due to lack of opportunity – and Tuilagi’s halcyon days in an English jersey came more than five years ago. This is not to say that they can’t or won’t click but opposite them the triumvirate of Sexton, Bundee Aki and Gary Ringrose is developing into a complementary unit and you’d expect the home side to have the advantage in this regard.

With the obvious caveat that all teams are affected by injuries, Sam Underhill’s absence is massive for England as they simply do not enjoy the depth in back rows currently enjoyed by the defending champions. Josh Van Der Flier – in many ways the most underappreciated back row in the Irish squad – was exceptional against New Zealand and with a big performance tomorrow, can lay claim for now to the most keenly contested jersey in Irish rugby. Van der Flier plays most closely in style to the traditional open side but against New Zealand he also carried brilliantly, a facet of his game which many see as paling in comparison to Dan Leavy and Sean O’ Brien.

Which naturally brings us to O’ Brien, potentially the most devastating forward replacement Ireland have ever been in a position to call on. If things are going awry tomorrow, or not, O’ Brien’s entry around the hour mark will be a huge boost not just for the team but all in attendance in the stadium. In tandem with Jordan Larmour – currently top of the queue for the number 23 jersey – though in an entirely different manner, O’ Brien may well provide the game breaking ability to put England away in the final quarter.

With the ‘boring’ boot work of Conor Murray being called into question this week, the irony is that in the opening minutes all eyes will be on the accuracy of the kicking of Ben Youngs and Owen Farrell and the fielding ability of Robbie Henshaw who, though a settled veteran in the side, now finds himself in the spotlight ordinarily reserved for debutants.

Ireland’s successful November fed into an excellent few months for the provinces while the English sides, with the exceptions of Saracens and Saracens, largely floundered. Whether this actually means anything won’t be revealed until mid-March but recent history suggests that the success of Leinster and Munster has been inextricably linked with subsequent success for Ireland. But then, Saracens and Exeter provide a large chunk of the English team and the club malaise may reflect more of the difficult relationship between the RFU and English club owners.

Ireland, quite incredibly from our perspective, start as nine point favourites. The have won the last two encounters with England by nine and ten points, respectively, and odds makers are borderline savants but the line seems a little high.

In a quaint role-reversal expect the visitors to bring all the noise early on but the steadying hands of Murray and Sexton, and, the firepower on Ireland’s bench should see the home side prevail.

S.U.S. Prediction: Ireland by 6

Tips: Handicap draw (England +6) @ 16/1

England half time/Ireland full time @ 6/1

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