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England v Ireland: Farrell’s side can clinch Six Nations title with bonus-point victory

All prevailing logic and form points towards an Irish win against England which is both unnerving and undeniable

Six Nations: England v Ireland, Twickenham, Saturday, 4.45 – Live on RTÉ 2 and ITV

It seems as if Ireland cannot take to the field these days without another landmark looming into view, and no better place than the home of rugby to kick-start a celebratory party, to give the travelling Green Army and some of the Irish diaspora something to shout about.

Ireland stand on the threshold of setting a new all-time championship record of a dozen wins in a row, eclipsing the 11-match winning run established by England between 2015 and 2017. They can also equal the all-time Irish record of five consecutive wins in the 141-match, 149-year history of this fixture.

But more than that, a bonus-point win would seal consecutive Six Nations crowns, while effectively a win of any hue would ensure as much given Ireland’s points differential (+81) compared to Scotland (+6).

But more, much more than that even, a win over England would set up a shot at becoming the first Irish side ever to secure back-to-back Grand Slams, something only five sides have ever done, and none have done so in the Six Nations era.


On the crest of such a wave, and with some of the others at a low ebb, you’d have to think that Ireland will never have a better chance of winning back-to-back Grand Slams either. That’s the Holy Grail, unstated but understood, of this high-achieving Irish team.

“They have to be an inspiration because that’s what we’re all here for,” admitted Peter O’Mahony after his first captain’s run on Twickenham’s pristine, snooker-like surface.

“That’s what the competition is and what we’re all competing for, to do the things you’re talking about. We’ve touched on it but probably not for a few weeks now.

“We know, not that it’s disruptive, but it’s irrelevant to be talking about it at this point, because your performances show everyone what you’re thinking really and tomorrow, to keep everything that we want to do alive, we need a performance. And it has to be the best one we have put in so far.

“I think we have grown through the competition and tomorrow has to be the best of the whole lot, and the rest of it will sort itself out if that’s the case.”

Ireland’s display against Wales wasn’t without its imprecision, especially in the first half, and a more potent side than Wales could well have made it 17-14 when the inspirational Tadhg Beirne was sinbinned early in the second half. That could be a concern, or a means of provoking a more clinical and accurate performance here.

While Ireland profited from being more direct after the introduction of the bench against Wales, Farrell did not see being more direct as a blueprint against England.

“It’s just making the right decisions at the right time and being calm enough to see that and feel that and do that. Directness isn’t just about punching holes because if we do that into a white wall, we’ll be going backwards. It’s about motion and people being in motion and numbers at the line and picking the right options on the back of that that’s going to get us going forward.”

At least with Ireland there is a well-established modus operandi with a settled side. What to make of this English team?

On the one hand, they’ve won eight of their last 10 matches in the World Cup and the Six Nations and came within a whisker of reaching the World Cup final. They’ve also had some success in stifling Ireland for spells in the last two championship clashes despite a red card in each.

Against that, those eight wins were against a poor Argentina (twice), Japan, Chile, Samoa (by 18-17), Fiji (30-24), Italy (27-24) and Wales (16-14), and on lines through Italy and Wales, then Ireland should be even hotter than 12-point favourites.

Furthermore, England have won eight and lost 10 of their last 18 games in the Six Nations, and of those victories four were against Italy and three against Wales, while they have lost four times in a row against Scotland for the first time since the 1890s.

Over the same period, Ireland have won 15 and lost three, and the last four wins over England have been by remarkably consistent margins in the teens – by 14, 17, 13 and 19 points.

There has been plenty of noise around this England team, with all manner of former players voicing concerns, while even Jonny May and Ben Youngs have revealed that they don’t spend enough time practising their attack.

In their three games to date they have scored six tries, compared to 11 against the same trio last season. They had a lovely strike play for George Furbank’s try in Murrayfield but their phased attack is non-existent and they have looked robotic in sticking to the preordained box-kicking strategy between the 10-metre lines, even when two scores down inside the last 10 minutes in Murrayfield.

But rather than recall Freddie Steward and signal an aerial bombardment true to Steve Borthwick’s data-driven approach, they have given a first Test start to Immanuel Feyi-Waboso after his try-scoring cameo in Murrayfield.

Either way, Farrell maintained: “I don’t get involved with the criticism [of this English team] at all. I don’t look at it. I look at the individuals; the way that they’re playing, the coaching staff that they got, the plan that they’ve got, a fantastic side that is going to be preparing to give it everything they’ve got at the weekend so that makes them unbelievably dangerous.

“We just prepare for them to be at their best and if that’s the case it’s going to be one hell of a battle.”

Indeed, you look at this English team and it is full of experienced, proud internationals. Maro Itoje in particular is looking strong again and this will be another step up for Joe McCarthy.

England’s pack looks stacked with lineout threats, including Itoje, and bearing in mind the five scrum penalties the Irish pack conceded two years ago, they will surely go after Ireland’s set pieces.

It could also be the biggest test yet of Jack Crowley’s decision-making under the duress which Felix Jones’s blitz defence will try to impose.

The home team will be fired up and home crowd engaged from the off, and the longer England stay within a score, they have a chance, as they don’t look equipped to play catch-up. But even then Ireland have the smarts and a particularly wily, impactful bench to find a way.

All logic points to an Irish win, perhaps by 10 to 15 points, which is both unnerving and undeniable.

ENGLAND: George Furbank (Northampton); Immanuel Feyi-Waboso (Exeter), Henry Slade (Exeter), Ollie Lawrence (Bath), Tommy Freeman (Northampton; George Ford (Sale), Alex Mitchell (Northampton); Ellis Genge (Bristol), Jamie George (Saracens, capt), Dan Cole (Leicester); Maro Itoje (Saracens), George Martin (Leicester); Ollie Chessum (Leicester), Sam Underhill (Bath), Ben Earl (Saracens).

Replacements: Theo Dan (Saracens), Joe Marler (Harlequins), Will Stuart (Bath), Chandler Cunningham-South (Harlequins), Alex Dombrandt (Harlequins), Danny Care (Harlequins), Marcus Smith (Harlequins), Elliot Daly (Saracens).

IRELAND: Hugo Keenan (Leinster); Calvin Nash (Munster), Robbie Henshaw (Leinster), Bundee Aki (Connacht), James Lowe (Leinster); Jack Crowley (Munster), Jamison Gibson-Park (Leinster); Andrew Porter (Leinster), Dan Sheehan (Leinster), Tadhg Furlong (Leinster); Joe McCarthy (Leinster), Tadhg Beirne (Munster); Peter O’Mahony (Munster, capt), Josh van der Flier (Leinster), Caelan Doris (Leinster).

Replacements: Rónan Kelleher (Leinster), Cian Healy (Leinster), Finlay Bealham (Connacht), Iain Henderson (Ulster), Ryan Baird (Leinster), Jack Conan (Leinster), Conor Murray (Munster), Ciarán Frawley (Leinster).

Referee: Nika Amashukeli (Geo).

Assistant Referees: Andrea Piardi (Italy), Craig Evans (Wales)

TMO: Ben Whitehouse (Wales)

Overall head-to-head: Played 141, England 80 wins, Ireland 53 wins, 8 draws.

Last five meetings: (2020, ANC) England 18 Ireland 7. (2021, 6N) Ireland 32 England 18. (2022, 6N) England 15 Ireland 32. (2023, 6N) Ireland 29 England 16. (2023, RWC warm-up) Ireland 29 England 10.

Five-game formguide: England – Lost 15-16 v South Africa; Won 26-23 v Argentina; Won 27-24 v Italy (a); Won 16-14 v Wales (h); Lost 21-30 v Scotland (a). Ireland – Won 36-14 v Scotland; Lost 24-28 v New Zealand.; Won 38-17 v France (a); Won 36-0 v Italy (h); Won 31-7 v Wales (h).

Betting: 4-1 England, 25-1 Draw, 1-5 Ireland. Handicap betting (England +12 points) evs England, 25-1 Draw, evs Ireland.

Forecast: Ireland to win by 10-15 points.

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times