Although international rugby has been in motion for a month now, it has taken a while for the sparks to ignite any real flames. Six Nations ‘Super Saturday’ proved far from its own billing, while the threat of coronavirus outbreaks wrecking fixture lists remains a very real threat that has affected Fiji significantly, as well as England in their cancelled game with the Barbarians.
It is why the Autumn Nations Cup took a little bit longer than intended to really take off, but the feeling this week has been one of anticipation and intrigue. With Eddie Jones firing his repeated barbs towards the Irish, who to their credit have not felt any need to respond, and the memory of three dominant victories hanging over today’s match at Twickenham, you would be forgiven for believing it was the middle of February, for this week has a Six Nations vibe around it.
While it was a welcome change to see Georgia getting a crack at a tier one team, nothing can really replace Test matches between two heavyweights. A Wales team in stark decline failed to offer that last weekend, but with Ireland heading to south-west London with a point to prove, there is a spark already waiting to ignite a fire that could rage out of control this afternoon.
Cast your mind back nine months ago and England took on Ireland by bullying them into submission through sheer physical dominance and confrontation. It followed a trend set in 2019 when they took the spoils in both of their contests, and has the home side going into this Autumn Nations Cup Group A clash as the heavy favourites.
Ireland boss Andy Farrell has countered that by stacking his forward pack to the brim. The talented James Ryan returns to Twickenham as the leader of the entire team, inheriting a captaincy that he looks destined to take off fly-half Johnny Sexton when he calls time on his career, but he will spearhead a back reinforced by a back row featuring both breakdown wreckers CJ Stander and Peter O’Mahony as well as the free-running Caelan Doris, while Ronan Kelleher and Andrew Porter have emerged well from the front-row shadows of Rory Best and Tadhg Furlong this year.
Farrell’s selection, with the powerful lock Quinn Roux preferred over the disruptive Iain Henderson, points to fighting fire with fire, and England know they will have to step up to that intensity level or risk being bullied themselves.
“With no disrespect to Italy and Georgia, Eddie mentioned us wanting to be the greatest team and these games, like he said, you can't let these opportunities slip by,” said England’s No 8 Billy Vunipola.
“If we go into it and we don't do very well, everyone will say 'Oh, it's alright, it is just the autumn' but we are not treating it like that. It is an international Test match. We want to go out there and test Ireland and test ourselves and whether we want to push through that pain barrier.”
England’s victory in February included a number of flare-ups between the two teams, with Ryan and Stander involved in an off-the-ball ruck with Maro Itoje and Stander finding Owen Farrell attached to his boot at a breakdown that resulted in the English skipper being dragged comically across the Twickenham turf.
The same is expected of this contest, whether the Autumn Nations Cup means much or not, because simply put these two sides do not like losing to each other.
“Playing against Ireland and the Irish pack you always get fierce competition,” admitted Itoje, who like opposite man Ryan you can easily imagine as being his country’s next international captain.
“They are an extremely hungry side and there are an extremely passionate side and that is evident through the way they play, and the way they conduct themselves and the way their provincial sides do. I think it is a hallmark, a trait that is consistent within Irish rugby.”
But although recent history is on England’s side against Irish rugby - with the three recent Test victories added to by Saracens’ stunning Champions Cup quarter-final victory over Leinster in September - Itoje believes it would be foolish to allow those results to determine expectations this time around.
“I think it was a decent performance by us,” Itoje said of February’s Six Nations win. “We got the basics of our game well, but I don’t want to dwell too much on what has happened previously because it doesn’t really matter.
“Often you can look at history for what is going to happen next but it is going to be a completely different, fresh and new challenge. I am the type of person that likes to focus on what is coming and I am just really excited to get out there and play.”
That excitement has brought an edge out of the England camp this week, according to Vunipola. “You might not see it or hear it but walking around and the way the boys are carrying themselves, especially today, you can see that there's a quiet confidence about us,” he added, “and also a little bit of that nervous energy which is never a bad thing.”
England: Elliot Daly; Jonathan Joseph, Ollie Lawrence, Henry Slade, Jonny May; Owen Farrell, Ben Youngs; Mako Vunipola, Jamie George, Kyle Sinckler; Maro Itoje, Joe Launchbury; Tom Curry, Sam Underhill, Billy Vunipola.
Replacements: Tom Dunn, Ellis Genge, Will Stuart, Jonny Hill, Ben Earl, Dan Robson, George Ford, Max Malins.
Ireland: Hugo Keenan; Keith Earls, Chris Farrell, Bundee Aki, James Lowe; Ross Byrne, Jamison Gibson-Park; Cian Healy, Ronan Kelleher, Andrew Porter; Quinn Roux, James Ryan; CJ Stander, Peter O’Mahony, Caelan Doris.
Replacements: Rob Herring, Ed Byrne, Finlay Bealham, Iain Henderson, Will Connors, Conor Murray, Billy Burns, Jacob Stockdale.
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