Billed as the most crucial match in this year’s RBS Six Nations Championship, Ireland’s showdown with England at Lansdowne Road tomorrow also has the potential to be the most entertaining. Both teams have long been renowned for their powerful packs and set-piece strength but there has been a shift of emphasis on the evidence of their last two games.
England has scored seven tries and 76 points in victories over New Zealand and Scotland, while the Irish have brushed aside Argentina and Wales by crossing 10 times and also amassing 76 points.
“We’re allowed to go off script and that can make us pretty dangerous,” England scrum-half Ben Youngs said. “The coaches back us to go out and express ourselves, which is what you want.”
Ireland were also willing to throw the ball around on the opening weekend of the Six Nations, with winger Simon Zebo and star centre Brian O’Driscoll showing off their skills in the 30-22 win in Cardiff.
With so much at stake tomorrow, it remains to be seen whether the old rivals stick to their new approach that made for a riveting opening weekend of the Six Nations.
France’s shock loss in Italy has realistically left just the Irish and the English in contention for the Grand Slam and there is little to choose between them.
Home advantage is likely to give Ireland a crucial edge. It’s ten years since England earned a Six Nations victory in Dublin and, in that period, Ireland has recorded two crushing victories – 43-13 at Croke Park in 2007 and 24-8 at Lansdowne Road in 2011.
“This is a completely different team from 2011, with a completely different mentality,” said England coach Stuart Lancaster, who has reinvigorated the team since taking charge last year. “That said, playing the Irish in Dublin is a unique challenge. We’ve got to be able to deal with the emotion of the occasion and still think clearly, making good, accurate decisions.”
A fired-up Irish crowd will ensure England does not get an easy ride. Neither will O’Driscoll, the Ireland center who made a mockery of fevered talk of his impending retirement by delivering a man-of-the-match display against the Welsh.
“I’ve always tried to enjoy and live in the moment,” Ireland’s greatest-ever player said. “There’s no point in the whole sentiment, ‘Oh, this is your last game.’ What benefit does that have? I’ve not been sitting in my room wondering, ‘Will this be the last time I play England?’ Far from it.”
O’Driscoll was assured of extending his world-record partnership with Gordon D’Arcy when his fellow midfielder passed a fitness test on a dead leg. In fact, Ireland retained the same 23 who polished off Wales.
O’Driscoll and D’Arcy will face Billy Twelvetrees and Brad Barritt after they were retained by Lancaster, who resisted the temptation to recall powerful centre Manu Tuilagi after his recovery from an ankle injury. Tuilagi has been kept him in reserve after a four-week layoff. The only change by England was James Haskell for injured No 8 Ben Morgan (right ankle). Haskell will start on the blindside flank, with Tom Wood switching to No 8.
The English last beat Ireland away in the Six Nations in 2003 - the year they clinched the Grand Slam and went on to win the World Cup. That was also the last year O’Driscoll lost to England. He has eight wins from 11 matches against the English, and looks to inspire the Irish again.
Ireland: R Kearney (Leinster); C Gilroy (Ulster), B O’Driscoll (Leinster), G D’Arcy (Leinster), S Zebo (Munster); J Sexton (Leinster), C Murray (Munster); C Healy (Leinster), R Best (Ulster), M Ross (Leinster), M McCarthy (Connacht), D Ryan (Munster), P O’Mahony (Munster), S O’Brien (Leinster), J Heaslip (Leinster, capt). Subs: S Cronin (Leinster), D Kilcoyne (Munster), D Fitzpatrick (Ulster), D O’Callaghan (Munster), C Henry (Ulster), E Reddan (Leinster), R O’Gara (Munster), K Earls (Munster).
England: A Goode (Saracens); C Ashton (Saracens), B Barritt (Saracens), B Twelvetrees (Gloucester), M Brown (Harlequins); O Farrell (Saracens), B Youngs (Leicester); J Marler (Harlequins), T Youngs (Leicester), D Cole (Leicester), J Launchbury (Wasps), G Parling (Leicester), J Haskell (Wasps), C Robshaw (Harlequins, capt), T Wood (Northampton). Subs: D Hartley (Northampton), D Wilson (Bath), M Vunipola (Saracens), C Lawes (Northampton), T Waldrom (Leicester), D Care (Harlequins), T Flood (Leicester), M Tuilagi (Leicester).
Referee: Jerome Garces (France).