Ireland’s front-row concerns | England’s need to disrupt breakdown

Ahead of England vs Ireland in Round 4 of 2022 Six Nations, we look at talking points including: Ireland’s front-row concerns; Manu Tuilagi missing: England finding a way to beat Ireland without huge power game; how crucial the breakdown will be; Johnny Sexton’s final visit to Twickenham?

By Michael Cantillon

Last Updated: 10/03/22 11:43pm

England’s Maro Itoje and Ireland’s Johnny Sexton know the losers of Saturday’s Six Nations Test will be out of the title running

We look at key talking points for England vs Ireland in the Six Nations on Saturday, including Ireland’s front-row concerns, Manu Tuilagi’s absence, a vital breakdown and Johnny Sexton’s final Twickenham visit…

Ireland’s front-row concerns

A key factor in Ireland’s superb playing style over the last year or so has been a marauding front row, filled with physicality but also skilful hands and offloading ability.

Brian O’Driscoll and others termed it the best front row in world rugby at present, but Ireland head to Twickenham minus two of the starters there in loosehead Andrew Porter (ankle injury) and hooker Ronan Kelleher (shoulder).

Outstanding loosehead prop Andrew Porter misses Saturday’s game due to an ankle injury

That Porter picked up the injury from a Test where Ireland were coasting to victory in Dublin against an Italian side reduced to 13 players will really have frustrated Andy Farrell and the coaching team.

Dan Sheehan starts at hooker for Kelleher as he did against the Azzurri, and, though hugely promising to date, he remains very green as a holder of just five caps.

Ronan Kelleher suffered a shoulder injury in defeat to France in Paris

The experienced Cian Healy starts at loosehead with Munster’s Dave Kilcoyne on the bench, and though 34-year-old Healy is as robust as they come and has been a wonderful servant to Irish rugby – holding 114 Test caps and counting – he lacks the dynamism of Porter.

Shifting Porter to loosehead and allowing him to start alongside Tadhg Furlong, rather than replace him in games at tighthead, has been a genuine game-changer for Ireland.

Porter’s influence on Tests, and being able to set him on opposition sides in tandem with Furlong proved extremely difficult to contain.

Porter’s positional shift from tighthead to loosehead has worked to tremendous effect, and his absence is a big blow for Ireland

Ireland must do without at the home of English rugby, though, and alter their attacking plays as such, deviating slightly from what has been most effective of late.

Tuilagi out: England must find way to beat Ireland without immense power game

For four straight Tests between 2019 and 2020, England had the number of Ireland, beating them comprehensively on each occasion.

Granted one of those was a friendly at Twickenham prior to the 2019 World Cup, and another was a hastily-arranged autumn Test in 2020, also at Twickenham, in the wake of the Covid-19 outbreak, but the manner and method of each victory was near enough identical on each occasion: overwhelming power in defence and contact.

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England head coach Eddie Jones says Ireland are favourites for their Six Nations encounter at Twickenham and has described the match as a semi-final

England head coach Eddie Jones says Ireland are favourites for their Six Nations encounter at Twickenham and has described the match as a semi-final

Back-to-back Six Nations clashes in 2019 and 2020 saw England win comfortably both times, with Ireland appearing powerless to stop the likes of Manu Tuilagi, Mako Vunipola, Billy Vunipola, George Kruis, Sam Underhill, Owen Farrell, Maro Itoje and Kyle Sinckler in the physical stakes.

The power of Mako Vunipola (centre), Billy Vunipola (right) and others was central to victories over Ireland in the past

With Tuilagi and Farrell injured, however, and Eddie Jones choosing to move away from the likes of the Vunipola brothers, Kruis and Underhill, only Itoje and Sinckler remain – with the latter struggling for fitness during the week according to reports.

Tuilagi, particularly from an attacking sense, transforms England when he is on the pitch, but the recurrence of his hamstring injury after his latest comeback has robbed England of his talents.

Manu Tuilagi missing through a hamstring injury is a major loss for England

Jones’ side were dispatched by Ireland in Dublin last year, and will likely need to find a different formula to increased power and physicality if they are to get past Ireland this time.

Breakdown imperative

Another key aspect to Ireland’s attack and success has been speed of ball, and lightning-quick service at the ruck.

Nobody has had quicker ball at a breakdown than Ireland in the championship this year, with an average ruck speed of 2.89 seconds. By contrast, England’s is fourth quickest at 3.78 seconds.

Quicker ball leads to quicker attacks against defences which have not had a proper chance to set, and it is something Ireland strive for in every Test they play.

The way they achieve it is through immense accuracy at the breakdown, and that particular area – as it so often is in this sport – will be critical in deciding who wins Saturday’s fixture.

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England prop Joe Marler says they are looking at their game with Ireland on Saturday as a semi-final

England prop Joe Marler says they are looking at their game with Ireland on Saturday as a semi-final

With that in mind, England’s Maro Itoje and the fitness of flanker Tom Curry is huge for Jones and co. Particularly as Ireland also have the best stats for competing at and slowing down opposition ball.

Itoje and Ireland openside Josh van der Flier have each hit 104 rucks so far in the Six Nations this year, some 20 more than the next player, and the Saracens second row is a menace in terms of disrupting ball.

Josh van der Flier has been a key man for Ireland this year, excelling at the ruck and in the carry

Peter O’Mahony (centre), captained Ireland vs Italy and starts again vs England, where his breakdown and set-piece work will be crucial

He also can fall on the wrong side of the referee’s whistle with his style of play, which he will need to avoid, but unsettling Ireland at the breakdown will be a big focus.

“They move the ball pretty quickly from the base and play with a lot of momentum,” Itoje told media this week.

“So it is around the tackle area, with your work you do as a team, that will determine the speed of the ball at the breakdown. That is the challenge for us.

Itoje spoke this week of the importance of slowing down Irish possession at the breakdown

“I always love playing Ireland, they are a talented team. I enjoy the challenge.

“Year-on-year they have been improving and getting better. They are progressing really well. It is a massive game and a great opportunity for us to show our growth as a team.”

Sexton’s final visit to Twickenham?

News also broke this week that Ireland skipper Johnny Sexton had signed a new IRFU contract through to the 2023 World Cup – by which time he will be 38 – and the playmaker also confirmed he would retire after the tournament in France.

As such, that would make Sexton’s trip to Twickenham on Saturday his final Six Nations clash at the home of English rugby. Something head coach Farrell played down at his media duties, but also something Sexton and his team-mates will be acutely aware of.

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Ireland captain Sexton says he wants to go out at the top after announcing he will retire after the 2023 Rugby World Cup

Ireland captain Sexton says he wants to go out at the top after announcing he will retire after the 2023 Rugby World Cup

Their 2018 trip to Twickenham saw Sexton and co clinch a Grand Slam in the snow, but their last championship visit in 2020 saw Sexton miss a kick from close-range, directly in front early on, knock on in-goal to present George Ford a try, and miss with his only other kick at goal too.

It was one of the toughest days Sexton has experienced in green, but he has recovered to play phenomenally over the last year, with his displays in wins against New Zealand and Wales particularly outstanding. He was badly missed in Paris too.

The quality and influence of Sexton’s performances at the top level of a ferociously physical sport belie his age of 36

Seldom do away sides win at Twickenham, however. Indeed, it has happened just eight times in over two decades of Six Nations history.

Ireland have been responsible for four of those, and there would be no better way for Sexton to walk out of Twickenham for the last time than with a victory which would keep his side in the title hunt and knock England out of it.

Team News

England: 15 Freddie Steward, 14 Max Malins, 13 Joe Marchant, 12 Henry Slade, 11 Jack Nowell, 10 Marcus Smith, 9 Harry Randall; 1 Ellis Genge, 2 Jamie George, 3 Kyle Sinckler, 4 Maro Itoje, 5 Charlie Ewels, 6 Courtney Lawes (c), 7 Tom Curry, 8 Sam Simmonds.

Replacements: 16 Jamie Blamire, 17 Joe Marler, 18 Will Stuart, 19 Joe Launchbury, 20 Alex Dombrandt, 21 Ben Youngs, 22 George Ford, 23 Elliot Daly.

Ireland: 15 Hugo Keenan, 14 Andrew Conway, 13 Garry Ringrose, 12 Bundee Aki, 11 James Lowe, 10 Johnny Sexton, 9 Jamison Gibson Park; 1 Cian Healy, 2 Dan Sheehan, 3 Tadhg Furlong, 4 Tadhg Beirne, 5 James Ryan, 6 Peter O’Mahony, 7 Josh Van Der Flier, 8 Caelen Doris

Replacements: 16 Rob Herring, 17 Dave Kilcoyne, 18 Finlay Bealham, 19 Iain Henderson, 20 Jack Conan, 21 Conor Murray, 22 Joey Carbery, 23 Robbie Henshaw.

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