Six Nations 2021: Where will Ireland find inspiration against England?

By Michael MorrowBBC Sport NI
England Ireland
England's most recent triumph over Ireland came in November's Autumn Nations Cup meeting at Twickenham
Guinness Six Nations 2021 - Ireland v England
Venue: Aviva Stadium, Dublin Date: Saturday 20 March Kick-off: 16:45 GMT
Coverage: Listen to commentary on BBC Radio 5 Live and BBC Radio Ulster; live text commentary and post-match video highlights on the BBC Sport website and app.

In February 2019 England came to Dublin, grabbed Ireland by the ankles and hauled them off cloud nine.

In the two years that have followed England have stayed stood over the top of Ireland, intermittently serving up reminders of the heights from which they have fallen since the halcyon days of their most triumphant year in international rugby.

The last four meetings between the sides have yielded four English wins, each one following the same pattern of physical mismatches and reflecting a food chain in northern hemisphere rugby on which Ireland have appeared to be getting only further away from the top.

On Saturday at the Aviva Stadium, there is no title up for grabs. But it remains a hugely significant encounter with implications far beyond the Six Nations standings.

Irish fans are looking for a sign of improvement, and a win over England to break the cycle of limp defeats would have the potential to wash away huge swathes of uncertainty that still linger over Andy Farrell's team.

Breakdown battleground

The hopes of any cautiously optimistic Irish fan rest on the team's considerable improvement at the breakdown.

It is on this battleground that England have overwhelmed Ireland in recent encounters. Slowing them down, turning them over, knocking them back.

It is where Maro Itoje, a relentless presence in each of the last four meetings, has shown himself to be unmatched by any Irish adversary.

By his own towering standards Itoje has had a quiet tournament, perhaps down to a lack of competitive action at Saracens. Although he came to the party with the match-winning try last week at Twickenham, so Ireland will not be banking on their tormenter-in-chief having an off day.

Not that England are a one-man band in this department, as someone like Tom Curry would be quick to remind you.

But under the tandem coaching of Simon Easterby and Paul O'Connell Ireland have massively upped their game at the breakdown. Tadhg Beirne has led the charge and his move back to the second row will not, you suspect, see his influence wane too much.

Going forward Ireland's best spells, against Italy and in the opening exchanges at Murrayfield, have come from accurate work at the ruck leading to quick ball and constant forward momentum.

England's dominance has stemmed from their control of the gainline, and if Ireland stand any chance, it is an area in which we must see substantial improvement.

A final Lions audition

In this most curious of seasons, Ireland arrived into the tournament with whispers that they could be looking at their smallest British and Irish Lions representation for some time unless they upped their game.

The patchy form has continued, yet Ireland are looking at more Lions selections than they were at the start of the tournament. Saturday's final international audition could be the deciding display before Warren Gatland picks his party.

Assuming fitness, Tadhg Furlong and James Ryan were nailed on before the tournament and remain safe bets.

Johnny Sexton's triumph over Finn Russell last week will have likely removed any remaining doubt Gatland may (although more likely may not) have had about the Dubliner's ability to contribute match-defining interventions at the top level.

Then there is Robbie Henshaw, who has returned to top gear having been beset by a raft of injuries since being forced to leave the 2017 Lions tour in New Zealand. A fully-fit Henshaw at his energetic and busy best is a hard man to leave off the plane.

Itoje Henderson Lions
Will Maro Itoje and Iain Henderson be Lions team-mates again this summer?

Beirne and fellow forward Iain Henderson have enjoyed excellent tournaments, with Munster's Beirne a genuine contender for man of the match in all of Ireland's games to date while Henderson, long viewed as an outstanding player who sometimes allows his level to drop, has put together a string of high-quality performances with huge carrying figures and a mountain of breakdown work aiding his cause.

Of all the mini-battles with Lions implications scattered along the Aviva Stadium pitch - Sexton versus George Ford, Ben Youngs against Conor Murray, even Furlong against Kyle Sinckler - the most interesting one might just be in the second row.

With Itoje a dead cert for the tour, Henderson and Beirne will be looking to cap off their stellar individual campaigns by out-duelling the man who, by all calculations, is in possession of one of the hypothetical starting Lions jerseys.

CJ's last stand

When a player retires it can sometimes be hard to decipher which of the eulogies from team-mates and coaches are generic and which are heartfelt.

In the case of CJ Stander, every testament to his character and influence within the Irish set-up is a genuine reaction to the announcement that has shocked the entire team.

Stander has been one of this side's emotional leaders for some time. Routinely namechecked by team-mates as someone who sets the tone and drives people on in training and on gameday, his departure will be felt as keenly off the pitch as it will on it.

CJ Stander
Stander will win his 51st and final Irish cap on Saturday

As Rory Best touched on in his column, Stander is the single most persuasive argument in favour of the residency rule.

A world-class player who understood before ever wearing the green jersey that he needed to bring more than a rambunctious style of play if he wanted to make a lasting impact.

Like or loathe the residency rule, you cannot deny that Stander has brought plenty to the Irish rugby table.

In any normal season, the response of 55,000 people inside the Aviva Stadium would attest to how fondly the man from the Western Cape is thought of on Irish shores.

Legacy aside, Stander's departure will leave a very practical hole that Ireland must fill. He currently leads the Six Nations in carries, and appeared set to act as the continuity presence within the back row as Ireland usher in the new talents of Caelan Doris, Will Connors and more.

That is an issue for Farrell to concern himself with from Sunday onwards. On Saturday Stander will line up for one last time, at blind-side flanker as opposed to his more familiar number eight, in the hope of leaving one last positive memory in green.

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