England and France may be “le Crunch” but England and Ireland contests are renown for packing plenty of intensity and emotion. Last weekend’s “Crunch” at Twickenham provided arguably the best game of the tournament to date, as in a nailbiting and fast flowing game a rejuvenated England managed to narrowly derail France’s Grand Slam ambitions. Meanwhile Ireland kept their recent winning streak at Murrayfield alive with a convincing win over an out of sorts Scottish side. Saturday’s dustup in Dublin should prove to be a big physical contest, with two sides desperately wanting to put a finishing shine on what has been an otherwise disappointing Six Nations campaign for both.
England’s revival in their defeat of France last weekend was impressive, with the Men in White playing an exciting attacking game while at the same time staying true to their hard hitting physical brand of rugby. Ireland did much the same at Murrayfield and like England held their nerve to hold off a late challenge from their opponents. England managed to get a handle on their discipline and maintain their composure as France made a dramatic comeback at the end. Ireland finally appeared to have a game plan against Scotland that played to their obvious physical strengths while allowing their backs a lot more of the ball than they have been used to seeing of late.
It’s one of our favourite fixtures of the year and you won’t want to miss it.
Ireland vs England – Saturday, March 20th – Dublin
Ireland’s Tadgh Furlong produced one of the most memorable moments of the tournament with this dazzling display of footwork against Scotland last weekend. The powerhouse prop made a bruising return to the Irish front office, and there was no hint of the injury that had kept him off the Irish team sheets for the last year. As good as England were last weekend, we think with Furlong in the mix Ireland will be able to hold their own against the English trio of Kyle Sinckler, Luke Cowan Dickie and Mako Vunipola. There will be an equally sparky encounter in the front row once the replacements come on as Ireland’s Andrew Porter and England’s Ellis Genge get to know each other again at the coalface. If you like gritty edgy contests up front Saturday’s matchups are unlikely to disappoint.
Clash of the Titans
Saturday’s match sees a contest we’ve been eagerly anticipating all year in the second row. Two players who have had massive impact for their respective sides go head to head, and you could argue that the battle could be won and lost here more than in any other area on Saturday. Ireland’s Tadgh Beirne has been absolutely outstanding for Ireland throughout their Six Nations campaign and the same can be said of England’s Maro Itoje. Despite some people criticizing Itoje’s penalty count in the Round 3 match with Wales, we felt that it stemmed more from the fact that he was one of the few English players actually applying himself. Beirne has spent his Six Nations equally at home in the back and second rows but in all four matches has been one of Ireland’s standout players whatever position he plays. With Irish second row legend Paul O’Connell now helping out with Ireland’s set pieces Beirne has become even more of an effective unit. Itoje lends England an edge and degree of controlled aggression that they can ill afford to do without. His towering presence in both the lineouts and at the breakdowns has been of vital importance to England, and last weekend against France the lock was imperious. Two players with very different but highly effective playing styles, the contest between them alone on Saturday will be worth the price of admission. Itoje may have more Test caps under his belt but Beirne has had a huge impact on Ireland since coming into the squad in 2018. You won’t want to miss this one.
End of an era for one of Ireland’s favourite adopted sons
Since South African CJ Stander burst onto the scene for Ireland in 2016, he has been front and centre of everything Ireland does well. One of the nicest guys playing the modern game, and a player seemingly oblivious to injury and with a work rate second to none, his teammates will play out of their skins on Saturday to ensure that this Irish legend’s final match is one to remember. It’s a great shame that Stander’s final outing in a green jersey will not be in front of the 50,000 Aviva crowd who have taken him into their hearts these last 5 years. Still expect the powerful back rower to play like a man possessed and give his worthy opposite number Mark Wilson more than a few bumps and bruises to take back to Twickenham as a souvenir. One of the games great jackals and guaranteed to have one of the highest ball carrying stats of the match once referee Mathieu Raynal blows the final whistle, Stander will be sorely missed by Ireland after he hangs up his green boots for the last time on Saturday.
Old boys clubs
While Ben Youngs and George Ford may not be quite the established half back partnership for England that Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray have become over the years they are not far off it. Equally dynamic together and with an implicit understanding of what they are both trying to do, there is little to choose between them and as a result an even contest awaits. The Irish pair have been accused of being a long way off their lofty Grand Slam standards of 2018, but Sexton’s performance against Scotland last weekend saw the fly half play one of his best games in years. Murray is also picking up a head of steam again after troubles with injuries so provided they click Ireland should be in very safe hands on Saturday. England’s scrum half Ben Youngs has been firmly planted in the crosshairs of English supporters sights since the last World Cup, but like Sexton silenced his critics and then some last weekend in an outstanding performance against France. His partner George Ford has provided England that attacking edge they have been missing since the World Cup, making everyone seriously question why he hasn’t had more than the 48 starts he has had to date for England since he debuted way back in 2014.
The baby faced warrior makes his return
We’ve felt a bit sorry for Jacob Stockdale over the years. Sure his try scoring exploits of 2018 did slightly go to his head, and he clearly was never meant to be the long term solution to replacing Rob Kearney at full back. We think that it has become fairly obvious this Championship that newcomer Hugo Keenan has carved his name in stone on the 15 jersey. Find the right way to use Stockdale and all of a sudden Ireland has a world class threat. He’s a big lad in the mold of Shane Horgan and Tommy Bowe, and defensively he seems to fare better on the wings than at fullback. Let’s face it defence out wide in the shape of James Lowe who Stockdale replaces has been a nightmare for Ireland this Six Nations, and the Scotland game proved without a shadow of a doubt that despite his talents on attack Lowe is not a Test Level wing. Stockdale on the other hand has proven his merit and recently his defensive positioning especially out wide has definitely improved. At this stage Ireland have to revert to the more proven commodity in Stockdale and hope the Ulster winger brings his club form to the Test arena as containing England’s Anthony Watson who turned in a blinder of a performance against France will be no easy task.
This match has all the makings of a classic on Saturday as with no silverware to chase, both sides technically have nothing to lose but their reputations. Consequently expect both teams to go at each other hammer and tongs in what is traditionally one of Test Rugby’s most physical events of the year. It’s a hard one to call but England after last weekend look the tighter and more coherent of the two sides in terms of execution. Consequently in what should be an absolute nail biter to the death we have a hunch that it could be England’s day by a very tight margin. Expect Ireland to pull out all the stops to ensure CJ Stander has the sendoff he deserves, and that could end up swinging it Ireland’s way provided they can keep their emotions in check. Despite the occasion though we’d still argue it’s England’s game to lose. Either way we CAN’T wait to find out whether we’re right or wrong and think we’re in for eighty minutes of top class Six Nations entertainment whichever side walks away with the spoils.