Six Nations: Win this and suddenly 2015 looks very bright for England

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Ireland versus England in Dublin will be the game that decides the Six Nations, and without doubt, that makes it the biggest match for both these sides in the last 18 months.

For England, it will be pivotal in terms of how they go on to play in the World Cup. Win this and they could and should win the Championship, the Grand Slam even – and with a load of guys that, were it not for injuries, wouldn’t have been anywhere near the 30. After this it’s two home games, against Scotland and a faltering France...

Win the Championship, and suddenly the strength in depth in the squad has tripled. Suddenly all those players who want to come back, guys like Joe Launchbury, Geoff Parling, Courtney Lawes, Chris Ashton, they know, in this year of all years, that they cannot make a mistake.

When everyone knows that in virtually every position there is a man ready, waiting and able to take your place, that is when teams rise.

 

Can this England team, with all its new, exciting but sometimes faltering combinations, back up what they did against Wales? They weren’t great against Italy. We didn’t see the same impact from James Haskell. Dave Attwood looked like a different player. Why? Having a new baby around the house perhaps? Maybe he and others half-knew they would beat Italy, and just couldn’t rise to the same level.

In the autumn, when England lost to South Africa and New Zealand, it happened because they left points on the pitch. At Lansdowne Road you can’t afford to make mistakes. England have to give a full, 80-minute performance. Not 60 minutes, like they did against Wales and Italy. If they are asleep for the first 20, the game will be gone.

Whether Ireland are on form or not they’re always hard to beat, and they’re on form now. Perhaps not as emphatic as in the autumn, but that extra gear is there.

To be without Mike Brown at full-back is a huge loss to England, for the solidity he provides in the high ball and the communication on the pitch. He might not be everyone’s cup of tea, with his in-your-face nature, but that’s what I want to see from backs. He orchestrates what happens in that back line. His work rate is immense, and his skill set is right there, too.

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Chris Robshaw passes the ball during training at Pennyhill Park (Getty Images)

That said, the great thing about this England side is that the guys who have come in have delivered. The pressure the two standout new guys, Jonathan Joseph and Anthony Watson, have put on those whose shirts they, in theory, are keeping warm – Ashton and Tuilagi – is huge. (Although when Tuilagi does return, I hope it will be to play alongside Joseph, rather than replace him. That is a mouthwatering combination.)

Joseph and Watson won’t surprise Ireland in the way they did Wales. Ireland will know what to expect. What Joseph, in particular, offers is unpredictability, and expecting that and dealing with it are two different things. Tuilagi, with his power and pace, might put the fear of God into you, but get your technique right and you should stop him. With Joseph, you can’t quite know what to expect. In that sense, he’s like Brian O’Driscoll.

This will also be the biggest test of George Ford’s career. In some quarters, one of the game’s more interesting sub-dramas is that it casts Ford and Johnny Sexton in a battle for the Lions No 10 shirt in two years’ time. We shall see but, certainly for England, where this match will be won and lost is with him. Ford must play on the front foot, must take the ball to the line and bring his players into the game.

If the Irish forwards get on top of the match early, it will be a tough day for England. But if England hold their nerve, and win some early penalties, the match will be theirs to win. And from there, 2015 suddenly looks bright.

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