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Champions Ireland open their defence with a stern test against England as they look to become the first side to win back-to-back Grand Slams in the Six Nations.
A year ago, Joe Schmidt’s men ended their campaign at Twickenham and comfortably defeated the Red Rose to record their fifth successive victory in the competition and claim their third Grand Slam.
In 2019, they open the tournament against the same opposition, with Eddie Jones’ charges heading to Dublin, but the Emerald Isle will no doubt expect a tougher contest than they received in 2018.
Schmidt’s outfit dominated in London and went away with a 24-15 triumph, but the Englishmen look a far more fearsome proposition heading into Saturday’s game. In Manu Tuilagi and Billy Vunipola, they have two potentially destructive players back, while the team looks balanced throughout.
There are doubts, however, over Vunipola’s and Tuilagi’s match fitness in the international arena, having barely played at the highest level recently, but their mere presence will attract attention and potentially open space for their talented back three.
England’s main concern possibly comes at full-back with Elliot Daly preferred to Mike Brown. Following the Harlequins man’s recall to the wider squad, it seemed likely that he would start but Jones has kept faith with the out of form Daly, who has struggled at Wasps.
Ireland also had questions over that position and have interestingly opted for Robbie Henshaw over Rob Kearney and Jordan Larmour. Kearney is solid and dependable while Larmour is that will-o’-the-wisp attacking threat, but Henshaw is the man that has been backed.
Although the 25-year-old has a good skill set, high ball practice is not something he has necessarily been accustomed to over recent years, especially at Test level but, then again, Ben Youngs is not Conor Murray.
Youngs has a good kicking game but Murray is still well ahead in that department and you get the feeling that it will be Daly who comes under more pressure, rather than his opposite number.
Elsewhere, it’s ‘as you were’ for Ireland, despite the omission of Jack McGrath for Munster’s Dave Kilcoyne. The pack is effectively first choice, even though Tadhg Beirne and Iain Henderson would have competed with Devin Toner for a position in the second-row.
It will also be a big tournament for Josh van der Flier, who has been selected ahead of the exceptional Sean O’Brien. The openside’s tournament was ruined last year following an injury picked up against France in the opening encounter and he will look to prove his worth with the Irish having plenty of depth in that position.
All in all, Schmidt’s men have the edge in momentum, experience and confidence, but a rejuvenated England are a dangerous proposition for the defending champions.
Players to watch:
For Ireland: With Rob Kearney out of favour and Jordan Larmour not yet trusted to start in such a big game, Joe Schmidt has decided to move Robbie Henshaw to full-back. It is a bold call, with the Leinster player not featuring there for Ireland since his debut in 2013, but he does have experience of that position at provincial level. However, Test match rugby is a completely different environment and, despite having excellent core skills and a good rugby brain, England will hope that it is a rare errant decision from Schmidt.
For England: There has been plenty of discussion surrounding Manu Tuilagi’s inclusion but it is Billy Vunipola who will be even more vital to England’s chances of beating Ireland. The number eight has only just returned from injury and is still regaining match sharpness but Vunipola does at least have a few games under his belt. It is not just his carrying prowess which is vital but he, as well as Tuilagi, attracts defenders, leaving space for others. If the Red Rose can get it right then there are a number of threats in that side which can hurt the hosts.
Head-to-head: There are plenty of interesting individual duels but it is surely the battle at the contact area and set-piece which will win the game. Ireland’s Peter O’Mahony is a master at both and Mark Wilson will have a task on his hands to match the hosts’ blindside. Wilson is a threat at the breakdown and always goes about his task manfully but O’Mahony has the edge going into Saturday’s encounter.
2018: Ireland won 24-15 in London
2017: Ireland won 13-09 in Dublin
2016: England won 21-10 in London
2015: England won 21-13 in London
2015: Ireland won 19-09 in Dublin
2014: England won 13-10 in London
2013: England won 12-06 in Dublin
2012: England won 30-09 in London
2011: England won 20-09 in Dublin
2011: Ireland won 24-08 in Dublin
Ireland: 15 Robbie Henshaw, 14 Keith Earls, 13 Garry Ringrose, 12 Bundee Aki, 11 Jacob Stockdale, 10 Johnny Sexton, 9 Conor Murray, 8 CJ Stander, 7 Josh van der Flier, 6 Peter O’Mahony, 5 James Ryan, 4 Devin Toner, 3 Tadhg Furlong, 2 Rory Best (c), 1 Cian Healy
Replacements: 16 Sean Cronin, 17 Dave Kilcoyne, 18 Andrew Porter, 19 Quinn Roux, 20 Sean O’Brien, 21 John Cooney, 22 Joey Carbery, 23 Jordan Larmour
England: 15 Elliot Daly, 14 Jonny May, 13 Henry Slade, 12 Manu Tuilagi, 11 Jack Nowell, 10 Owen Farrell (c), 9 Ben Youngs, 8 Billy Vunipola, 7 Tom Curry, 6 Mark Wilson, 5 George Kruis, 4 Maro Itoje, 3 Kyle Sinckler, 2 Jamie George, 1 Mako Vunipola
Replacements: 16 Luke Cowan-Dickie, 17 Ellis Genge, 18 Harry Williams, 19 Courtney Lawes, 20 Nathan Hughes, 21 Dan Robson, 22 George Ford, 23 Chris Ashton
Date: Saturday, February 2
Venue: Aviva Stadium, Dublin
Kick-off: 16:45 GMT
Referee: Jérôme Garcès (France)
Assistant Referees: Romain Poite (France), Federico Anselmi (Argentina)
TMO: Glenn Newman (New Zealand)