Ireland vs England preview: England must win aerial duel to get one over the Irish in Six Nations clash

Inexperienced backs to be tested by Sexton’s expert kicking in possible Six Nations decider against Ireland in Dublin

England rarely find it easy to play champagne rugby in the land of the black stuff, so it is just a little unnerving to think of them crossing the Irish Sea on Six Nations business with a growing reputation as the attacking free spirits of the European game. Vastly more experienced red-rose teams have dug their own graves in Dublin by taking an  over-ambitious approach, so the danger on Sunday is blindingly obvious.

Yet such is the level of can-do confidence sloshing around the England camp, there is every chance that George Ford, Jonathan Joseph, Anthony Watson and Jack Nowell (four adventurous souls with the less-than grand total of 27 caps between them) will go bold with ball in hand, aided and abetted by the highly imaginative Alex Goode, who has been recalled at full-back for the concussion-plagued Mike Brown.

In which case, this will be a real edge-of-the-seat job – even more compelling, perhaps, than last season’s high-quality affair at Twickenham, when both teams contributed handsomely to a game that would not have looked out of place in the closing stages of a World Cup. It may even be decided by another act of individual brilliance, above and beyond realistic expectation. Remember Joe Launchbury’s belief-beggaring tackle at the death a year ago? Sunday’s margins could be equally fine.

The visitors expect to be sorely tested, none more so than the freshly-minted back three combination of Goode, Watson and Nowell. For these three, the aerial contest will be at the very heart of proceedings, especially as Ireland have an outside-half as punishing in the tactical kicking department as Jonathan Sexton and a pair of world-class chasers in Rob Kearney and Tommy Bowe, men who can get off the ground like Harrier jump jets and pick high balls out of the ether like Aussie Rules ruckmen.

 

Nowell, in particular, has a big 80 minutes ahead of him. Given the nod at left wing ahead of the demoted Jonny May, the Exeter back must absorb the complex positional detail of the No 11 role – detail that has flummoxed generations of England wide players down the years, from David Trick of Bath, who endured the torments of hell after switching from right flank to left in 1983 and being turned inside out by an inspired Ollie Campbell, to Charlie Sharples of Gloucester, who made the same positional move  in the early years of this current red-rose era and has not been seen in an international shirt since.

“We switch things around as a unit quite a bit anyway, so I don’t think it will be an issue for me,” Nowell said  yesterday. “The way the coaches want their wings to play, we have the freedom to roam – to play off the scrum-half or the outside-half if the opportunity presents itself. And if, in doing that, I find myself on the right wing and Anthony finds himself on the left, we won’t run 50 metres just to swap with each other.”

He will, however, find himself running towards the sin bin if he puts himself on the wrong side of the increasingly draconian laws surrounding the challenge for the ball in the air. During the Scotland-Wales game in the last round of matches, both Finn  Russell and Jonathan Davies were given a 10-minute break, even though neither man appeared to do anything terribly wrong. This is a grey area for all players – and particularly impenetrable for a 5ft 11in Cornishman confronting a 6ft 3in Ulsterman like Bowe.

“Referees are very hot on the high ball stuff at the moment,” Nowell acknowledged. “How do you approach the aerial challenge? By always keeping your eyes on the ball. If you make sure of that and the collision is then referred to the video official, there’s not much anyone can do.”

Despite talk of significant changes to the Ireland starting line-up, their coach Joe Schmidt settled for just one alteration of the enforced variety. Jordi Murphy, the Barcelona-born No 8 named after the patron saint of Catalonia, was called up in place of the Lions Test forward Jamie Heaslip, who was kneed in the back by the French lock Pascal Papé last time out and left nursing three fractured vertebrae as a consequence.

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Ireland captain Paul O'Connell

Schmidt’s decision not to run another Lions tourist, Cian Healy, at loose-head prop, despite the Dubliner’s return to full fitness, exposes the less battle-hardened Jack McGrath to the expertise of the England front row, which many good judges consider to be the most effective sharp-end unit currently operating at Test level. If the visitors are to establish a really meaningful advantage, this appears  to be the most fertile ground for them.

But if they are as generous with their errors in the opening minutes of tomorrow’s game as they were in the  fixtures against Wales and Italy, they will need far more than a heavy-duty scrummaging performance. “The start is an extremely important aspect and it’s something we’ve talked about a good deal,” said Stuart Lancaster, the head coach. “I don’t think bad starts are a consistent feature with us, but they’ve certainly been a factor in the tournament so far.”

Lancaster is as wary of  Ireland as he was of Wales on the first night, and if things eventually fall into place as they did in Cardiff he will be a very happy man. “When you play the Irish over there, you almost feel you’re up against 16 or 17 men, such is the energy they bring to the game,” he said. “Dublin is a difficult place to go, as some outstanding teams have recently discovered, and Ireland are a quality team. You don’t beat the Springboks and the Wallabies, as they did in November, by accident.”

Nine-match winning stretches are not accidental either: Ireland have not lost to anyone since last year’s near-miss in London.  England’s chances of ending that run depend on them playing with a precision which matches their aspiration.

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