By Brendan Cole
The "what ifs" have piled up over the course of this RBS 6 Nations Championship and no matter how this Twickenham clash plays out, Ireland will always wonder if this was a Championship they left behind them.
What if Ireland had used a high line speed against Wales? What if Donnacha Ryan had started alongside Paul O’Connell in Paris? What if Ireland had made space for Simon Zebo on the wing?
For reasons which are still not entirely clear, Declan Kidney passed on an obvious opportunity to wish the likes of Donncha O’Callaghan and Gordon D’Arcy well after a brave but ultimately unsuccessful RWC campaign and test the younger talent in the country.
Ireland’s attitude this week is perhaps equally puzzling – both Stephen Ferris and Rob Kearney have publicly made statements that England coach Stuart Lancaster could pin on the dressing room door if he was so inclined.
It seems to be out of step with the usual way of Kidney teams. But while the head coach himself would not make such statements, the sentiments are not dissimilar to Ronan O'Gara's assessment of English talent prior to Munster's famous win over Leicester at Welford Road.
If Ireland do find themselves blitzed by England, as they were in 2008 and 2002, those quotes will make painful reading. England have given off a much more positive vibe.
Back-row clash key to Ireland's chance
Ireland are entitled to ask questions - whether they should or not is another question. This English group is not the steamroller that regularly overpowered Ireland in the 1990s and early 2000s, there are signs that a major revival may be underway. The back-row of Ben Morgan, Chris Robshaw and Tom Croft is potentially a vintage group though ironically, it may be that Croft, the most vaunted in the press, proves the weakest link.
Ulster supporters will remember his no-show for Leicester in the Heineken Cup clash in Belfast earlier in the season and if Ireland can make this a tight game based on collisions, Jamie Heaslip, Stephen Ferris and Sean O’Brien may just come out on top.
The fact that Eoin Reddan starts could yet prove the key to unlocking O’Brien’s talent and while the scrum-halfs missed tackle on Richie Gray last week was a poor one, Ireland have been at their most dangerous as an attack with him on the pitch.
Jonathan Sexton has impressed and is the most effective running out-half in the Championship and with the onus on Ireland to retain the ball for long periods, that could also prove key.
The scrum battle and lineout have been well flagged as key contests and unusually, Ireland look to have the edge in the former as they have the best scrum specialist in Mike Ross, while England are relatively lightweight behind the front row.
Ireland’s underperforming lineout is a concern, and Geoff Parling and Tom Croft look set to give Rory Best a torrid afternoon. But the psychological and tactical impact of gaining some scrum dominance at Twickenham could yet prove more important than the occasional missed throw.
Ball security has been an issue, but England’s ability to compete looks no better than Ireland and the major concern is the backline defence and particularly Ireland’s ability to handle Manu Tuilagi at the same time as they allow for Owen Farrell’s excellent kicking.
The young out-half already looks a good decision maker, not unlike O’Gara with the added bonus of hard hitting defence, and is capable of kicking or flinging a long pass off either hand depending on Ireland's set-up.
Trimble and Bowe set for testing day
There are concerns about the defensive capacity on both flanks as Andrew Trimble has sometimes lacked finesse in the tricky situations wingers invariably find themselves in in tight games, while Tommy Bowe’s tackling in the wide areas, particularly against Wales, has not been assured this season. Keith Earls has been effective but the level will step up hugely and unlike France, England are certain to pose difficult questions in his area.
England, unlike France, have usually understood that Rob Kearney is best played by targeting the sidelines.
If Farrell does turn out to be the man pulling the strings and he makes the lineout the key phase, Ireland are in trouble.
On the other hand, if Ireland's game-shapers at nine and 10 can make the clashes in the area either side of the ruck the key contest, Ireland's ball-carrying power, combined with Reddan’s fluency and England’s selection of a few lightweight forwards, could yet see another famous Twickenham win.
Match prediction: Ireland 23-18 England
What They're Saying:
Stephen Ferris: "If you ask any team who do they like beating and it's always the English. Why? It's something I can't really put my finger on. We took so many beatings from England at under-age level. Any time we played Under-18s, -19s or -20s we always received a thumping. I never beat them.
"They come with bit of a tag about being arrogant and if you asked any team they'd probably say the same thing. They're a good side and are full of winners, but when they lose they don't like it. They're bad losers and hopefully they'll be bad losers on Saturday."
Stuart Lancaster: "Before the Scotland game I said I would be disappointed if, come the end of the Six Nations, the English side was going to be labelled as arrogant. Our performance on and off the field have reflected a team that is focused, determined and proud to play for their country.
"It goes back to the same mantra of believing what is inside the room, the self belief and the team belief, as opposed to listening to people outside."
Ireland v England, RBS 6 Nations, Twickenham, Saturday 17 March, kick-off 5pm:
England: B Foden; C Ashton, M Tuilagi, B Barritt, D Strettle; O Farrell, L Dickson; A Corbisiero, D Hartley, D Cole, M Botha, G Parling, T Croft, C Robshaw (capt), B Morgan.
Replacements: L Mears, M Stevens, T Palmer, P Dowson, B Youngs, C Hodgson, M Brown.
Ireland: 15 Rob Kearney, 14 Tommy Bowe, 13 Keith Earls, 12 Gordon D'Arcy, 11 Andrew Trimble, 10 Jonathan Sexton, 9 Eoin Reddan, 1 Cian Healy, 2 Rory Best (captain), 3 Mike Ross, 4 Donncha O'Callaghan, 5 Donnacha Ryan, 6 Stephen Ferris, 7 Sean O'Brien, 8 Jamie Heaslip.
Replacements: 16 Sean Cronin, 17 Tom Court, 18 Mike McCarthy, 19 Peter O'Mahony, 20 Tomás O'Leary, 21 Ronan O'Gara, 22 Fergus McFadden.