Despite the carnage of last Sunday in Murrayfield, when Ireland lost four forwards by the 45th minute to be followed by Garry Ringrose eight minutes from time, Ireland’s resourceful defeat of Scotland may not have wreaked such a toll as was initially feared given the six-day turnaround.
Conceivably, Andy Farrell could make as little as two or three changes to the XV which started against Scotland when the side to face England in Saturday’s shot at the Guinness Six Nations title at the Aviva Stadium is unveiled at about 3.30pm on Thursday.
Robbie Henshaw seems sure to be promoted from the bench to replace the stricken Ringrose, while Ryan Baird looks the obvious replacement for Iain Henderson, after he underwent an operation for the wrist injury he suffered in Murrayfield.
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Both Dan Sheehan and Caelan Doris, two of Ireland’s standout players in New Zealand, last November’s Autumn Series and in this Six Nations campaign, apparently trained yesterday after recovering from the shoulder injuries which forced their first-half withdrawal in Murrayfield. Both thus seem set to retain their starting places.
Another change could well see Jamison Gibson-Park return as the starting scrumhalf after he made such a dramatic impact in the last 27 minutes in Murrayfield, important though Conor Murray’s physicality and experience was in a more testing first-half after a slightly edgy start.
It was Gibson-Park’s first appearance of the Six Nations after he missed Ireland’s opening three wins against Wales, France and Italy due to a hamstring issue, but despite the lay-off he looked very sharp.
If Gibson-Park is picked to start, it would signal an intent to generate a high tempo from the outset, as France achieved to such telling effect in their record 53-10 win over England at Twickenham last Saturday.
There is also a possibility that Ronan Kelleher may also have overcome the shoulder injury he suffered in the first-half against Scotland, when he was an early replacement for Sheehan, despite which he soldiered on until the 45th minute. If not, then Rob Herring will be called up.
The ripple effect of the cruelly unlucky Henderson missing out on this game, of all games, after recently working his way back into first the match-day 23 and then the team, will see either his Ulster team-mate Kieran Treadwell restored to the bench or the uncapped Ross Molony being called up for what would be an eye-catching international debut.
The 27-year-old Treadwell was an ever-present in the series win over New Zealand off the bench before his run of six games in succession ended after he was omitted following the win over Fiji last November, and would look the likelier choice.
Henshaw’s return to the starting line-up for the first time since the autumnal win over Fiji, when his hamstring strain resurfaced within the first five minutes, leaves a vacancy for the multipurpose number ‘23′ jersey.
Conceivably, any one of six players in the 37-man squad would have the versatility or even speciality skills to fill that role. Of late, Farrell and co have demonstrated a liking for having an impact player at ‘23′ as much as a utility back, with Aki a particular favourite.
Stuart McCloskey would be a similar fit, but more likely perhaps is that Farrell will plump for one of the several players who can provide cover in the back five. Jimmy O’Brien certainly fits that profile.
He played in three different positions in all three Autumn Series Tests as well as winning his fourth cap in the win over Italy in the Stadio Olimpico, when he played the last eight minutes at outside centre. On that premise, he also seems the next name in the pecking order.
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England’s team will be announced at around 5pm and it will be a surprise if captain Owen Farrell isn’t restored at outhalf, with Marcus Smith demoted to the bench, as Steve Borthwick has another rethink.
The indications are that Farrell will start inside the recalled Manu Tuilagi and Henry Slade as England reunite a 10-12-13 axis last seen together in the World Cup and which was also central to their win over Ireland in the 2019 Six Nations opener at the Aviva Stadium which so derailed Ireland’s year.
Tuilagi is set to replace Ollie Lawrence at inside centre in his first Test since winning his 50th cap in Eddie Jones’s last match in charge against South Africa in the autumn.
He was also sent-off for Sale for a reckless high tackle in a game against Northampton but his three-week ban has now elapsed after he undertook a World Rugby Coaching Intervention Programme – aka “tackle school” – to remove a fourth week from his suspension. Tuilagi has never lost in six Tests against Ireland.
Ireland (possible) v England: Keenan; Hansen, Henshaw, Aki, Lowe; Sexton (capt), Gibson-Park; Porter, Sheehan, Furlong, Baird, Ryan, O’Mahony, van der Flier, Doris.
Replacements: Kelleher/Herring, Healy, O’Toole, Treadwell/Molony, Conan, Murray, Byrne, O’Brien.