Ahead of England’s Grand Slam decider against Ireland in Dublin, Tom May picks out the key areas where the game will be won and lost.
The ferociousness on display in last Friday’s match between Wales and Ireland was unrivalled. No doubt it looks its toll with players looking exhausted by the end of a passionate 80 minutes. England took some knocks too and they have certainly done all they could to get Elliott Daly back for the weekend.
One thing is for certain, recovery is hugely important in the modern day game and it’s much easier to recover when you have just stuck 60 points on the opposition than having lost a game, especially one that would have given your side the chance to compete for the Six Nations title in your own back yard. Ireland need to mentally and physically repair themselves in time for the weekend.
Both England and Ireland have sensational players at their disposal in the back row, not only in the starting XV but also from the bench. For England they have their ‘finishers’ but I have enjoyed watching Nathan Hughes come in at No 8 who has worked extremely hard in the contact area. James Haskell and Maro Itoje have also improved game on game.
Combine that with the impact Billy Vunipola had from the bench last weekend — he nearly got the biggest cheer of the day at Twickenham — and you have four guys that are pushing for Lions places. Hughes and Vunipola swap around this weekend, and Hughes’ physicality will give England a major boost from the bench while Vunipola will look to hammer away at that Irish gainline from the outset.
On the other side you have two guys who have been capped at British & Irish Lions level in Jamie Heaslip and Sean O’Brien — CJ Stander is surely a future Lion in waiting. From the bench they can call upon Peter O’Mahony.
Stander has been a stand out performer for me in this Six Nations and tries, big hits and terrifying carries have become his bread and butter. Heaslip and O’Brien haven’t reached the level of performance we associate them with but don’t forget the No.8 was a nominee for World Player of the Year in 2016.
The match ups are enormous. The side that wins the battle of the breakdown and imposes their back row on the game most effectively will make it extremely difficult for the opposition to win.
All of these players have the ability to shift the momentum of a game. They can strike with massive carries in areas which hurt the defence and can slow down and steal ball to create mayhem. Collectively and individually they all have a massive role.
Four players have a massive influence on each game week in week out — the 9s and 10s. Conor Murray’s absence will be crucial as he and Johnny Sexton moved close to confirming their Lions places for this summer.
Murray’s game management has stood out for me this tournament as he has marshalled his team around the field, turning the pressure onto the opposition. Marmion will need to provide the same sharpness around the breakdown as he replaces a close to perfect scrum-half.
Sexton has bounced back from injury and looks like he has never been away. He loves the wrap around ball and while you can see when it’s coming, when done well not many defences can do anything about it.
They have a pivotal role in pressurizing England and doing as much as they can to make that pressure take its toll on a side that don’t seem to be affected by it as much as others.
Ben Youngs and George Ford need to match their opposite men. Both have been great for England during the tournament but they need to take another step up in performance to match these two. By keeping their side moving forward they negate much of what Ireland can do with their back row.
They also have the ability to slow down the defensive line speed shown by Ireland in Cardiff. The Irish won’t want to give England’s half back pairing time on the ball but by applying pressure through kicking the ball well, Youngs and Ford can swing the game in England’s favour.
I love England’s midfield make up. Ford and Farrell as two top class decision-makers allow the other players in the back line to do what they are good at: running good lines at top speed.
The shapes we have seen from England during the tournament aren’t complicated and have a strong influence from the 13-man game but they run them beautifully.
Ask Scotland’s Alex Dunbar and Huw Jones about just how hard it is to defend against this midfield. Ford, Farrell and Jonathan Joseph ran the show last Saturday.
Ireland need to match fire with fire. They have the players to do it in Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose. Henshaw can get Ireland on the front foot fairly consistently which will allow his half-back pairing the time to make good decisions. In turn, England need to make sure that the inside centre doesn’t get time to get on top of their defence.
England may have won the Six Nations but for me the telling moment was when Dylan Hartley brought the Calcutta Cup back down to his team, there was no celebrating, barely half a smile. Minds switched to the next job and the chance to create some history.
It is difficult to bet against this English side doing that against an Ireland team who have been disappointing at times. That said, it’s St Patrick’s weekend. Dublin will be rocking and what better way to build the party than to ruin England’s chances of creating some history.