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Ireland right on track for Twickenham test

It’s difficult to make a compelling argument that England can beat Ireland today.

The sides meet in round four of the Guinness Six Nations almost at opposite ends of their respective journeys.

England, under Steve Borthwick, are spluttering out of the station, while Andy Farrell’s train is thundering down the tracks, full steam ahead.

While you won’t find many sticking their heads above the parapet to predict an upset win for the hosts, which would be their first victory over Ireland in their last five games, that coming in an Autumn Nations Series in November 2020, England can, of course, win this.

The problem is that they would have to produce a performance that doesn’t look to be within their wheelhouse, while at the same time hoping that the defending champions – looking for a record 12th successive Six Nations victory – play well below their capabilities.

That perfect alignment for England seems unlikely.

Had, for example, the fixture list thrown Italy and Wales under the Irish bus in rounds one and two, and Ireland’s last outing been the Marseille demolition job, then England’s chances would have been better.

Ireland beat France 38-17

It was very difficult to fault-find from that win over France, but the subsequent 36-0 and 31-7 victories gave Farrell much to work with, all with the comfort of ten points in their pockets.

Their room for improvement is greater.

“We’ve seen growth over the last four-year cycle and as we start this cycle again it’s got to continue,” said number 8 Caelan Doris during the week.

“The exciting thing is that we don’t know where we can get to.”

Doris highlighted the team’s poor discipline against Wales where they coughed up 13 penalties and a free kick, many of them “silly”. The lineout woes re-emerged.

After completing rounds one and two with a 100% record out of touch, they lost two of 14 against the Welsh and a handful of others were dirty ball for Jamison Gibson-Park to deal with.

It’s an area England, who with the switch of Ollie Chessum to the flank line out with three second rows, will target.

With 13 of Ireland’s 15 tries to date coming off that set-piece, it’s a battle that will go a long way to deciding the outcome.

While Ireland won the last two championship games against 14-man England sides with a bit to spare on the scoreboard, if you take the 160 minutes as a whole, no one in the camp will claim that they reached the heights they know they can.

The 36 penalties conceded across those two matches stands in stark contrast to their average of just under 13 since the start of 2020. Farrell hasn’t gone into detail of why he believed Ireland tightened up in those games.

The former dual code England international said this week that an “80-minute performance and being relentless in how we’re going to go after the best version of ourselves” was the goal.

England be warned.

Ireland at the captain’s run on Friday afternoon

In the sides’ most recent meeting – the RWC warm-up in August at the Aviva Stadium, England decided to kick almost every possession that came their way – it may have been the first instance of a ball needing a HIA.

In fairness, Ireland weren’t shy in that department either but England’s kicks lacked accuracy and helped the hosts claim a 29-10 win.

England would have no doubt targeted Ciarán Frawley had Hugo Keenan not won his fitness battle and while the inclusion of George Ford over Marcus Smith hints that the garryowen will form a big part of their plan, they’ll find little joy with the dependable Leinster 15 back in harness.

That said, they have the highest tournament rate of regathering kicks at 19.2%.

Ireland have the best ‘entry into opposition 22 to points conversion rate’ (3.4) and are incredibly clinical with front-foot ball.

Former Ireland international Felix Jones is in the middle of bringing his successful Springboks defence template to England and quick linespeed to deny the in-form Bundee Aki (above) space to punch holes in midfield will be important.

“My situation with England, it’s early days still,” said the former Munster full-back yesterday.

“We’re trying to build on our own performances yet, so I suppose that building blocks behind that will be another few steps down the road for us.”

Borthwick, who led his side to a third-place finish at the World Cup, has handed a first start to Exeter’s Immanuel Feyi-Waboso (below) on the right wing.

His two caps to date have come off the bench so there is a limited international data set on him. He scored a try in their 30-21 loss to Scotland, taking a fine late line off a ruck to speed over.

Alex Mitchell returns at scrum-half with Danny Care poised for a 100th cap if he gets called from the bench. George Martin comes in to bulk up the pack in a English side that made 25 handling errors against Scotland and turned over the ball 22 times.

The selection of props Ellis Genge (60 caps) and Dan Coles (110 caps) suggests that they feel they can paint pretty pictures for referee Nika Amashukeli but Andrew Porter and Tadhg Furlong, winning his 75th cap, will have worked on that.

Two years ago the English pack went to town at scrum-time, winning five penalties and a free kick, all with the help of Jack Nowell as a stand-in flanker after Charlie Ewels’ early dismissal.

While England number 8 Ben Earl boasts the most carries in the tournament to date with 42 and leads the way with metres in contact at 78, the next four on the latter list consist of Doris (73), James Lowe (71), Calvin Nash (68) and Aki (68).

It’s a team game after all.

The fact that Ireland, with their 6:2 bench split, can afford to omit a player of the quality of fit-again Garry Ringrose from their 23 says a lot.

Ireland’s six forward replacements have a total of 336 caps, while England’s five men tally at 155, with 91 of them belonging to Joe Marler. With the dynamic Ryan Baird and Jack Conan in reserve, it’s a trump card Farrell holds.

A prominent ex-England international yesterday used his column to suggest all is not well in the camp; if true, it’s another thing the Irish, all on the same page, have over their hosts.

Ireland face England away for the 71st time, looking for their 20th victory, and arrive as 12-point favourites. They know that a bonus-point win will wrap up the championship with a week to spare.

In fact, should Scotland fail to get out of Rome with five match points in the 2.15pm kick-off then a win of any hue would be enough.

As funny as it sounds for a team with just 15 outright championship titles since 1890, they have set themselves higher goals, and after taking care of business at this Twickenham train stop, it will be all eyes on a shot at a first-ever Six Nations double Grand Slam.

Verdict: Ireland by 15

England: George Furbank; Immanuel Feyi-Waboso, Henry Slade, Ollie Lawrence, Tommy Freeman; George Ford, Alex Mitchell; Ellis Genge, Jamie George (capt), Dan Cole; Maro Itoje, George Martin; Ollie Chessum, Sam Underhill, Ben Earl.

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

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

Replacements: Rónan Kelleher, Cian Healy, Finlay Bealham, Iain Henderson, Ryan Baird, Jack Conan, Conor Murray, Ciarán Frawley.

Referee: Nika Amashukeli (GRU)

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