SIR CLIVE WOODWARD: England must avoid an arm-wrestle against Ireland… a high tempo and high discipline are needed in key match-up to decide Lions places
- England haven’t delivered two top-notch straight displays since the World Cup
- Eddie Jones’ men need to thrive on the momentum of beating France last week
- Lions coach Warren Gatland has chosen to fly to Dublin to scout both sides
- There are big games ahead for Elliot Daly at centre and Max Malins at full-back
Can England back it up? Can they come out firing in Dublin against Ireland on Saturday afternoon the way they did against France last week — or will we see an over-coached team implode like they did against Scotland and Wales?
This has been England’s problem for a while. The last time I can remember two top-notch back-to-back performances from them was at the 2019 World Cup, when they followed a very decent quarter-final win over Australia with an even better one over New Zealand. That is a long time ago now.
You can only ever focus on the next game. After a stellar performance against France they have the opportunity of becoming the ‘Team to Beat’, the favourites — but this time really thrive upon it. Momentum is everything in sport.
England came out firing against France but need to maintain that momentum against Ireland
Ireland could beat England for the 50th time
That is what England will be aiming for and I am pleased by the team Eddie Jones has named. From 1 to 15, England went well last week and they should take momentum into the game with just one injury-enforced change — Elliot Daly coming in at outside centre for Henry Slade.
Daly certainly has the skills to play 13. I remember him playing there for England against the Barbarians in 2015, when he had Slade at 12 and Danny Cipriani at 10 — not to mention Christian Wade outside him. A pretty tasty backline!
England ran riot that day, winning 73-12. They looked so dangerous and I’ve been surprised they haven’t turned to Daly more often in midfield. Especially as he possesses a massive left boot and can share some of the kicking duties in defence.
It won’t be easy for Daly on Saturday though. He doesn’t normally play at outside centre and is not in the best of form. It is also one of the most specialised positions on the park.
In defence you can be very exposed trying to cover a lot of ground in that wide channel and having to decide when to step in for the tackle, and in attack you are both a cutting edge and often the man required to make the key pass.
Full-back Max Malins (right) will likely be subjected to an aerial bombardment by Ireland
It will be fascinating to see how Daly goes and I have no doubt Andy Farrell and the Ireland coaching staff were rubbing their hands when the England team was announced.
Ireland have selected a very physical midfield and they won’t hesitate to send big units like Robbie Henshaw and Bundee Aki smashing into the likes of Daly and George Ford.
They will work hard to expose any defensive disconnect between Daly and Owen Farrell, who have rarely played together in midfield. I also expect to see a barrage of high kicks from Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray raining down on young Max Malins. We will learn a lot about his all-round skills on Saturday.
Ireland will be totally revved up. Win and Farrell will be in credit and the pressure will ease. Lose and serious questions will be aimed at him and his team.
There are also Lions places at stake. Neither side have many nailed-on certainties and I note Warren Gatland has chosen to travel to Dublin, not Paris. Murray will want a big performance on his return, as will Jacob Stockdale.
The title is out of reach for both – but a win could ease the pressure on Ireland boss Andy Farrell
Lions boss Warren Gatland (pictured) will be in attendance at Dublin on his scouting mission
The current Six Nations table as it stands
I cannot see Ireland setting out their stall like France and playing classic, free-flowing rugby. It will be spiky and niggly. Even without James Ryan, they will look to dominate England up front — just as Scotland did.
The Irish will also recall that strange Autumn Nations Cup match at Twickenham in November when they actually dominated the possession and territory and forced England to defend for most of the day without translating that into points. England certainly don’t frighten Ireland.
Despite all that, if England concentrate on producing the tempo, precision and variety of last week they should prevail. Ireland will want an arm-wrestle and England would do well to avoid that.
But they have to gauge it just right. High tempo and high discipline. That’s what we saw as they performed so well against France — very high quality, positive rugby played at pace.
England must focus on the way they want to play and not over-think what Ireland are going to do. That would be a massive mistake.
THREE KEY BATTLES
Scrum-half: Conor Murray v Ben Youngs
Murray will be eager to impress again on his return to starting duties with Lions selection in the offing, while Youngs is going really well and went toe-to-toe with Antoine Dupont last week.
Hooker: Rob Herring v Luke Cowan-Dickie
The Ireland lineout has been going great guns – it was a real weapon against Scotland – so can Herring and his jumpers keep that going and can Cowan-Dickie and England respond?
Centre: Bundee Aki v Elliot Daly
A big day for both men. Aki has had to take a back seat recently but an injury to Garry Ringrose gives him a chance against Daly, who rarely plays centre at international level. Daly is a great attacking force but can he handle Aki’s physicality?