England are going into their Guinness Six Nations showdown with Ireland this weekend as, somewhat surprisingly, the underdogs.
Owen Farrell, Manu Tuilagi, Luke Cowan-Dickie and Jonny Hill are all unavailable, adding to the doubt around their squad depth.
Alex Dombrandt had a reduced training week due to illness, but England are at least bolstered by the return of back-row Sam Underhill. Underhill hasn't had a lot of game time since his recent spell of concussion and illness, however his selection in the squad could be a warning sign for Ireland’s attacking game this weekend.
As underdogs, England and Eddie Jones are a massive threat to Ireland. All the talk has been about Ireland’s attacking game and how much trouble they’re going to cause England.
Jones will have to lay out a game plan to disrupt the Irish momentum - and he’s no stranger to doing just that.
In 2019, England put extra pressure on Johnny Sexton to pass the ball early. They sent a shooter out of defence to pressure Sexton and the Irish game plan stuttered as a result. England also used a kicking strategy to force Ireland to play in areas of the pitch where they couldn’t launch their attack.
This time around, I believe that the breakdown will be the key focus area for Jones.
Ireland have been playing with quick ruck ball due to their variation in the attacking game and their set-up allows them to have instant contacts at the breakdown.
Jamison Gibson-Park [above left] is very fast to arrive at the ruck. He’s also able to pick the ball to challenge the inside defenders without disrupting his distribution to Ireland’s forwards or Sexton as first receiver.
If England are going to limit the Irish attack, they need to make that ball messy for Gibson-Park, which will have a knock-on effect to the Irish timing in attack, as well as their ability to use variations to win the gain line repeatedly.
England’s strengths are in their pack. They have big physical tacklers like Itoje, Courtney Laws and Tom Curry. Not only do these guys challenge attackers on the gain line, they’re also a nightmare when they get into a poach position.
We saw this in the last play of the Wales game when Itoje got the all-important turnover to end Welsh hopes of a miracle comeback.
Ireland were pretty poor at the breakdown against Italy. They conceded a number of penalties at the ruck which was very uncharacteristic of them, even against the stronger teams.
Maybe they took their eye off some of the key details and went with a more attacking game, but it was good timing to focus the minds on the very area of the game where England will cause them a lot of trouble.
"This is going to be a pivotal game in Ireland's season."
Andrew Porter is also missing for the rest of the tournament. He’s done a huge amount of work at the breakdown for Ireland. His mobility around the pitch, paired with his huge physicality at the ruck, is going to be a massive loss for Andy Farrell.
Despite their ability with the ball in hand, England’s physical weakness is in the midfield.
Manu Tuilagi’s absence in the centre is a huge loss on both sides of the ball. What Elliot Daly and Henry Slade lack in terms of a physical punch on the gain line, they make up for with their kicking game but England have struggled without the multiple pronged approach of Tuilagi.
Ireland will more than likely counter that with the hard-hitting Bundee Aki, who has surprised many people with the number of touches and passes he’s getting away in behind the pod of three forwards.
He’s been linking well with Sexton when they’ve played together and is presumably in the hot seat to start at inside centre.
England are going to rely heavily on their forward pack to disrupt Ireland. They will test Ireland in all the foundational areas of the game. Their scrum will go after Ireland and they’ll contest everything at the lineout.
Itoje has caused a lot of trouble in the defensive lineout, always straying towards illegality, but he’s so good when he gets it right.
This might force Andy Farrell’s hand when it comes to selection. Will he go for a pack that is more mobile with greater ability around the pitch? Or will he look to his best set piece players, reinstating the likes of Iain Henderson, Rob Herring and Peter O’Mahony?
It will be interesting to see which approach Ireland take. Will they change it completely to match England’s strength or will they double down and further develop the faster game plan that we’ve seen come to fruition since last autumn?
Either way, this is going to be a pivotal game in Ireland’s season.
The Eddie Jones mind games have already begun, but Farrell won’t get too caught up in a media discussion.
As Irish supporters, we’ll be more interested in the players' reactions when they take to the field on Saturday evening.
Follow all of Ireland's Six Nations games via our live blogs on rte.ie/sport and on the RTÉ News App or listen to live radio coverage on RTÉ Radio 1. Watch live coverage of England v Ireland on Saturday 12 March (4.45pm) on RTÉ2 and RTÉ Player.