Maro Itoje and James Ryan will set the tone for their sides
If there was any sense that England appeared to go through the motions in clinching the Six Nations title with an underwhelming victory over Italy and with their limited ambition against Georgia, the message coming out of Eddie Jones’s camp this week suggests all will change at Twickenham on Saturday.
It is as if the previous two games were merely warm-up acts for the visit of Ireland, but with Jones setting the tone with his mind games on Thursday, Andy Farrell’s side can expect England’s full metal jacket.
“I’m not going to sit here and say we’ve got to match them, but we’ve got to step up,” said Billy Vunipola, the England No 8 who looks to be in the best shape of his career having recovered from a broken arm in January. “We want Ireland to know that we’re not taking this as just another game, it’s a massive, massive challenge and a test for us, especially up front.
“They want to see if they can negate the advantages from our scrum and mauls and breakdown, but it’s a nice challenge for us and one that excites a lot of the boys up front.
“You might not see it or hear it, but walking around and the way the boys are carrying themselves, you can see that there’s a quiet confidence about us and also a bit of that nervous energy, which is never a bad thing.”
England have effectively bullied Ireland into submission in their past three meetings, a winning streak that began in the Six Nations opener in February last year that represented the beginning of the end for Joe Schmidt’s great side.
And yet after grinding the life out of Georgia last Saturday via their scrum, England appear determined to develop their attacking game today, as Ireland are also attempting to do under Farrell. The retention of Ollie Lawrence at outside centre despite having so little opportunity against Georgia will provide the midfield ballast in the absence of Manu Tuilagi, while Jonathan Joseph will be given the licence to come off his wing as a “third centre”.
“We want to bring people into the game,” said Owen Farrell, England’s captain and son of the Ireland head coach.
“We want Ollie to bring the best out of himself and us to help him do that. We want him to be dangerous at the weekend and get some ball and show not what he has been doing at his club but what he has been doing here when he has had a chance, not just in the games but in training as well.
“He has been building nicely towards that, so we are looking forward to it.”
Ollie Lawrence had a quiet full-debut against Georgia
Farrell’s combination with Henry Slade at inside centre remains a work in progress and yet it is brimming with potential.
“He is a fantastic player and someone who makes things happen,” Farrell added.
“There’s an excitement that there’s loads more left in us.
“There’s an excitement that we are building, and we feel like we are just getting started.
“That for me is a very good place to be, especially going into a big test like Ireland.”
The task may seem daunting for an Ireland side in the midst of a significant rebuilding phase that has stripped them of much of their experience that made them the No 1 side in the world just two years ago.
Ross Byrne’s promotion to fly-half because of Jonathan Sexton’s injury means that Ireland’s half-backs have just 11 caps between them, compared to 186 shared between Farrell and Ben Youngs.
Farrell snr has picked a physical Ireland side, pairing Bundee Aki with Chris Farrell in the midfield, with James Lowe likely to again be encouraged to come off his wing, as he did against Wales, and pose questions of the England defence with his power and gain-line breaking feet. Yet it would be asking a lot of him on just his second cap to be Ireland’s talisman.
“I’ve got a vivid memory of James Lowe, playing for the New Zealand Maori against Japan in 2015 at Kobe Stadium,” Jones said.
“He scored a double chip-and-chase try against us, from his own goal line, so I know what a talented player he is.
“He’s got great work off the ball, so we are just going to have to defend really well against him.
“Test match rugby is always about pressure. There is pressuring the opposition to make mistakes and pressuring the opposition to think a bit differently. Sometimes when you’ve got young players they adapt really quickly, sometimes they don’t.
“The elements of the game will decide how well they adapt. We’ve got to be good enough to capitalise if they don’t – and if they adapt well we might have to play in some other area.”
No doubt Warren Gatland will also be watching on with interest, as there are head-to-head contests across the pitch from a Lions perspective, none so prominent as Maro Itoje’s battle with Ireland’s new captain James Ryan. The pair are likely to be Test match team-mates in South Africa next summer.
The here and now though is all that matters to England. The Autumn Nations Cup may just be ready to explode into life.