Jeremy Guscott: Why England will edge Ireland in Six Nations

By Jeremy GuscottRugby union analyst, BBC Sport
England coach Eddie Jones
Eddie Jones, the first Australian to be head coach of England, was in combative mood in the pre-match press conference
Six Nations: England v Ireland
Venue: Twickenham Date: Saturday, 27 February Kick-off: 16:50 GMT
Coverage: Live on ITV, commentary on BBC Radio 5 live & BBC Sport website and BBC Sport app, plus live text commentary.

Ireland traipsing to town with only a point from their opening two games.

A Twickenham welcome for new England coach Eddie Jones with his side sitting pretty at the top of the Six Nations standings.

But it would be a big mistake to see Joe Schmidt's side as underdogs. Saturday will be another intriguing and intense contest in a razor-tight championship.

Jones calls the media tune

Never mind his team, Jones has been making his own publicity.

Before their win over Scotland on the opening weekend, he provided the talking point by insisting that Vern Cotter's side were the favourites despite the bookies odds.

Ahead of their victory away to Italy, Jones spoke of wanting to "smack" Italy and give them "a good hiding".

England v Ireland: Eddie Jones says Jonny Sexton will be targeted

Now he has stoked the fires by declaring open season on Ireland's influential but injury-blighted fly-half Johnny Sexton.

Ireland revealed that Sexton had suffered a "whiplash injury" in defeat by France a fortnight ago and Jones has conjured smoke and mirrors with that information, claiming that Sexton's parents would be worried about the welfare of their son.

The media love it. When rugby gets personal like that it gives them something to talk about.

But Ireland's inclusion of Sexton says that Schmidt and his medical staff have judged him to be fit enough to withstand the rigours of a Test match and all that that entails.

Johnny Sexton Sexton unfazed by being target for opposition

Jones' verbals are quite enjoyable - up to a point.

Maybe it is a southern hemisphere thing. New Zealander Warren Gatland has been fond of winding up Wales' opposition, goading England's Dylan Hartley and the Ireland team in the past.

He has calmed it down now, though.

Jones has been a good judge of things so far and hopefully he too will know when to stop. Otherwise it will quickly get boring.

Ireland to take to the skies?

Another of Jones' digs at the Ireland camp was that the claim that they kick away 70% of their possession and that he had considered getting in an Australian Rules team to prepare England for the weekend's encounter.external-link

One problem. His claims don't match reality.

Ireland average 18.5 kicks from hand in this year's Six Nations - the second lowest - while England average 25.

Mar 2015: Henshaw try helps Ireland to Six Nations win over England

What is probably foremost Jones' mind is what happened in Dublin last year, when Sexton's boot kept England penned back in their own half and Robbie Henshaw leapt above Alex Goode to gather Conor Murray's box-kick and score the only try of the hosts' 19-9 win.

It is all mind games, but Schmidt and his squad are far too streetwise to be put off the kick-chase-and-compete strategy that they has worked so well for them - especially against England - in the past.

Myths and mischief-making
England kicked 36% of possession in a comfortable 40-9 win over Italy last time out
Ireland kicked only 24% in their narrow 10-9 defeat to France on the same weekend.

Wingers Andrew Trimble and Keith Earls are both good at winning aerial contests, as are Henshaw and full-back Rob Kearney, however, I think England are better equipped to deal with a barrage of kicks this year.

Mike Brown is at full-back instead of Goode and is excellent under the high ball, while wingers Anthony Watson and Jack Nowell have both improved.

The first of many for Itoje

Jones' comments have taken some of the focus away from England's on-pitch matters.

So far, with two games gone, they have been similar in personnel, style and results from what we have seen in previous Six Nations.

Maro Itoje
Itoje was part of a 51-man England squad named ahead of the World Cup last year, but failed to make the final selection

However, the debuting 21-year-old second row Maro Itoje, playing in place of the injured Joe Launchbury, is a reason to be excited.

Through his domestic and European form for Saracens, he has earned a crack at winning a starting place in a very competitive position.

He is mobile, fit, strong, aggressive and, for a young man, he looks comfortable and established on the pitch, which is always a sign of a very promising player.

But the most impressive part of his game is in the top six inches.

He is uber-bright in the decisions he makes around the breakdown in deciding whether to hit a ruck and fight for the ball, or stand off and provide options in the loose.

He is incredibly smart and I would suggest any young forward watches how he operates off the ball.

That intelligence and mobility will help England.

Jones has England playing a close, tight game. They are not straying too far from the protection of the forwards and keeping the breakdown at short range so that everyone in the team can contribute to making turnovers. This suits the players they have and more pertinently the one that they lack - a genuine, specialist fetching flanker.

Scrum strength critical for Ireland

By contrast, Ireland's back row has got a 24-carat open-side in debutant Josh van der Flier.

Stuart McCloskey
Stuart McCloskey has been a muscular prescence in the Ulster midfield this season

The 22-year-old has been in white-hot form for Leinster in the Pro 12, securing turnovers and making a nuisance of himself at the breakdown. If the game opens up and becomes looser, he and fellow flanker CJ Stander may start to dominate.

But first Ireland have to match England at scrum time.

That has been the weakest part of their game. It is also one of the "traditional strengths" that Jones hopes to build his England team around.

If Ireland's pack gets pushed back and outmuscled, that is so deflating for the team as a whole.

But if Ireland can hold their own physically up front, then that will be the sign that we are in for a really close Test match.

Sean O'Brien
Flanker Sean O'Brien, who played in two Tests on the Lions' tour of Australia in 2013, is out injured once again

And while England may have the physical edge up front, Ireland have it in the backs, with a very hefty centre partnership in Henshaw and debutant Stuart McCloskey.

Ireland have a lengthy injury list, with centre Jared Payne, wing Dave Kearney and flankers Sean O'Brien and Peter O'Mahony all out of action.

But Schmidt's coaching and attention to detail can help make up for those absences.

He is excellent at what I call 'NFL moves' - very detailed plans for set-piece situations, where everyone has a specific role to carry out or clever plays tailored to exploit individual weaknesses in the opposition defence.


It is six years since Ireland won at Twickenham and I think that wait will go on.

England will edge a tight game. If Ireland's scrum comes apart it will be double figures, single figures if not.

Ireland may be defending champions but they have given up consecutive half-time leads against Wales and France and are low on confidence.

England, coming home to Twickenham on the back of successive away wins, are not.

Jeremy Guscott was speaking to BBC Sport's Mike Henson.

This weekend's live TV and radio coverage
Sat, 27 Feb (14:25 GMT)Italy v ScotlandITV & BBC Radio 5 live sports extra
Sat, 27 Feb (16:50 GMT)England v IrelandITV & Radio 5 live
Six Nations coverage on the BBC

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