Farrells dodge the spotlight as Ireland seek Triple Crown at Twickenham
This is moving weekend in the men’s Six Nations. If England fail to beat Ireland at Twickenham tomorrow they will almost certainly be condemned to a third straight year bereft of winning the Championship, and the completion of an undeniable come-down for the World Cup finalists of earlier this season. The Irish, for their part, are chasing a Triple Crown, although for Johnny Sexton’s team, surely only the title itself will compensate for their much less successful World Cup performance in Japan.
Ireland victories at English headquarters are rare and therefore often seminal, from the blond bomber Simon Geoghegan’s fizzing try of 1994 through the humbling of Clive Woodward’s World Cup winners in 2004 to the Grand Slam success at Twickenham two years ago.
If history or the implications for trophies do not do it for you, how about the familial fun of Owen Farrell, the England captain, up against his dad Andy, who in a planned succession took over from Joe Schmidt as Ireland’s head coach after the men in green lost to the All Blacks in the World Cup quarter-finals.
There was scope here for the old oval-ball game to let its hair down with a dash of inoffensive hype – maybe the Farrells squaring up for the cameras, each with a clenched fist at the other’s very square chin. Would it have hurt? The hype, I mean, not the fists?
As it was, Farrell did not even show his face yesterday for the press conference normally undertaken by England’s captain – the vice-captain George Ford did it instead, and told a story of his mum preferring not to attend a club match when Ford’s side hammered a Newcastle team who had his dad Mike as defence coach. “The sooner that was over, the better,” said Ford.
But Eddie Jones, the England head coach, was on duty on day three of his four-day chat-a-thon of voluntarily fronting media sessions.
“They have had a good win against Wales and a scratchy win against Scotland,” Jones said of Ireland’s two Six Nations matches, both at home, while England have been on the road, losing to a resurgent France in Paris then winning a weather-affected match over the Scots. “It’s obviously hard coming back off the back of a World Cup,” said Elliot Daly, who has returned to full-back after facing the French and Scots on the wing. “But it’s how you perform in the Six Nations that leaves a legacy for the year.”
England’s squad went to see Cirque du Soleil in London last week, and while Jones’s selection manoeuvres yesterday were not quite as acrobatic, the choice of his back three was tricky to follow, as Jonathan Joseph becomes a starting wing for England for the first time on the occasion of his 50th cap.
With Tom Curry continuing to adjust to life as a novice No 8 – the Sale flanker, who is working to gain a clay-pigeon shooting licence, will be a target tomorrow for a powerful Irish back row and an 85-cap scrum-half in Conor Murray – Jones, inset, has doubled down in the relocation of Joseph, a career centre, albeit one with pace and exceptional defensive acumen.
This time last year, Ireland experimented with a centre, Robbie Henshaw, at full-back and England ruthlessly exploited him in a 32-20 win in Dublin. In between times, England put eight tries on Ireland at Twickenham in a World Cup warm-up last August.
Injuries to Jack Nowell, Anthony Watson and Joe Cokanasiga have certainly forced Jones’s hand. The alternatives to Joseph included the uncapped Ollie Thorley, who has trained with England throughout the Six Nations but has been released to play on the wing for Gloucester today, or Bath’s Ruaridh McConnochie, who went to the World Cup. “He has still got some work to do on his game before he’s ready,” Jones said of the 23-year-old Thorley, while the choice of which wing Joseph will occupy would be made today.
Jones also said George Furbank, the full-back who started the last two games, was “not quite right” to play, due to a long-standing groin-and-hip “issue”. Yet Furbank was confirmed as a travelling reserve who would be fit to play if required, so it must be inferred he has been dropped. And with just two backs – the returning Henry Slade and the scrum-half Willi Heinz – on the England bench, an injury to Daly or Jonny May could make for a very unfamiliar back three. Ben Earl, the dynamic Saracens flanker who is among England’s six replacement forwards, was mentioned by Jones as a “hybrid-type player that can play back row with pace and skill, but also could play in the backline with pace and skill”.
The scrummaging confrontation should be mighty – Joe Marler versus Tadhg Furlong, and so on – and Ireland with Devin Toner in for the unavailable Iain Henderson must fancy themselves to do damage to England’s lineout. Ireland under Andy Farrell and his fellow England international, the backs coach Mike Catt, are said by Jones to be kicking more than in the last days under Schmidt, and passing more. To this observer, they are also still wedded to their predictable one-out runners, even if Jordan Larmour’s breaks from full-back are offering a new dimension. This huge middle-weekend collision could be an affirmation of Ireland’s new expansion.
England are waging an ongoing battle to conquer the emotional challenge of peaking again after their efforts in Japan of just 15 weeks ago. The mind’s eye is drawn to the fit-again Manu Tuilagi doing his bit as a human wrecking ball and opening the holes for May, Daly and, yes, the elusive Joseph to do the rest.