England v Ireland, Twickenham, 4.50pm
Before every Six Nations championship we hear all about the importance of momentum.
Gaining it early is vital, not generating any is fatal.
And for all their efforts in the draw against Wales and the loss to France, Ireland have no momentum going into today's game against England.
Even if one more point would have done on opening day, and two more in Paris would have carved out a win, Ireland do not have a foothold in this tournament.
There wasn't much cause for enthusiasm before the Welsh match but if the Ireland-France game was a trial, all of the evidence pointed to an away victory.
That the prosecution couldn’t close the case against a French team that are only finding their feet after a World Cup nightmare tells its own story.
The officiating – as frankly bizarre and substandard as it was – was only one of the reasons Ireland didn’t get the job done.
The lack of depth on the bench was exposed as the French grew into the contest.
And if it had been Joe Schmidt instead of Guy Noves who masterminded the trick of introducing his first-choice props and lively scrum-half at a crucial juncture in the contest, he would have been heralded as a genius.
Rumours of the demise of a four-time Heineken Cup-winning coach may have been exaggerated.
And then there was the injury compilation.
Already weakened by long-term absentees like Peter O'Mahony and Iain Henderson, a depleted Ireland couldn't muster a final flurry.
The team that started might have been able to eke out another three points but the side that finished – missing vital cogs Sean O’Brien, Johnny Sexton, Rory Best, a one-legged Jared Payne, Mike McCarthy and a lively Dave Kearney – never looked like getting into the zone.
Ireland’s failure to capitalize on first-half territory came back to haunt them and it is a major concern that they went 42 minutes without a score, especially when added to the gap of 47 minutes between scores in the draw with Wales.
One try in two games is also a big worry.
Former Ulster coach Matt Williams pointed out this week that in the past 12 months, teams that have scored three tries or more have only been beaten on one occasion in international rugby.
“It goes without saying; we need to get over the whitewash. We might need to do it a few times,” forwards coach Simon Easterby told RTÉ Sport.
Schmidt himself has hinted that this championship, for him, is now a big-picture scenario.
Had Ireland been in the mix for the title, he would have been unlikely – with the enforced absences – to hand Twickenham debuts to Josh van der Flier (22) and Stuart McCloskey (23).
“It’s an opportunity for us that we haven’t really had before. We’ve always been right in the mix for the Six Nations and going as hard as we can,” he said at a training camp last week.
The worrying stat of Sexton finishing just three of his last 22 Ireland games (for assorted injury reasons, the last two with neck issues) can’t be ignored, and the point that his tackling technique is getting him into trouble is undeniable.
The ex-Racing Metro man was replaced against France just before their try so the passage of play didn’t get a TV replay, but he ran head first into a French attacker’s chest.
Keeping the play-maker on the pitch for 80 minutes is vital for Ireland to have any hope of a shock victory, and if he has to curb his instinct to win those particular battles in that particular fashion then so be it.
Let’s hope his boss can see that as well.
The hosts, despite being underwhelming, save for 25 minutes against Italy, so far under Eddie Jones, have the go-forward ball.
The pain of the World Cup, where Stuart Lancaster’s men shuddered to a halt in the pool stages, is still in their system, and as much as Ireland always ‘get up’ for the England game, this time it’s going to work the other way.
It’s Jones’ first outing at Twickenham; England are on for a Grand Slam and / or an RBS 6 Nations title; they cut loose last time out in Rome.
There’s your momentum.
In all Schmidt makes five changes with Mike Ross, Donnacha Ryan and Van der Flier starting up front, and McCloskey and Keith Earls in for Payne and Kearney in the backs.
While it will be interesting to see how the new centre partnership works with Robbie Henshaw inside McCloskey, it would be foolish to expect miracles from the duo in their first outing.
Ross and Cian Healy’s returns are a plus but England are so strong in the pack they can afford to drop Courtney Lawes, who came back in when Joe Launchbury, himself only a replacement against Italy, injured his hamstring.
Saracens Maro Itoje earns his first start in the second row, having featured against the Italians at wing forward.
Joe Marler, coming in for Mako Vunipola in the front row, is the only other change to the starting XV.
Ireland haven’t won in Twickenham in six years and in this case the evidence pointing to an England victory is mounting.
It’s not that their team is anything spectacular; it’s just that this Ireland side looks like it doesn’t have the gas in the tank to return with the points.
WHAT THEY SAID
Joe Schmidt: "I am always nervous and apprehensive, even when we make no changes from week to week.
"Even when we would be well favoured to win a game, I would be apprehensive."
Eddie Jones: "Maybe Clive Woodward summed it up best when he said everyone hates England - that's true.
"Because of the history that is involved with the social and historical context, there is that long-seated rivalry and hatred of England. You can feel it."
- Stuart Lancaster won both of his home Six Nations games against Ireland, with Ireland scoring just one try in these two matches at Twickenham.
- CJ Stander has made the most carries of any player in the competition this season (42).
- Ireland have failed to reach 20 points in any of their last six games against England, scoring just three tries in these games in all competitions (L5, W1).
- Only three times before have Ireland lost consecutive matches in the same Six Nations tournament (2013, 2008 & 2005).
Referee: Romain Poite
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