Preview Ireland v England

Many is the time Brian O’Driscoll has been Ireland’s hero against the English be it at the old Lansdowne Road, Croke Park or the Aviva Stadium – this time, however, he must sit one out due to a stinger injury sustained against the French last week.

And so the captaincy passes to Paul O’Connell – quite a seamless transition from one Lions skipper to another, don’t you agree?

Last March when these two sides met, Ireland were playing the role of Grand Slam spoilers after a mediocre Six Nations campaign. This time round, we face Martin Johnson’s men with the squad decided for the trip to New Zealand and although the fear of injuries will always be there, with three in the loss column already this August, a victory is much needed to give us the right send off.

Well it is a very different English team that comes to Dublin this weekend, particularly in the backline. Their World Cup winning hero Jonny Wilkinson gets the starting nod at 10 and with Ben Youngs recovering from surgery and Danny Care tragically ruled out through injury, Saracens’ Richard Wigglesworth wears the 9 jumper.

And they have a completely new and potentially game-breaking combination at centre, with a stark contrast in experience between Mike Tindall and the sheer power of rookie Manu Tuilagi.

In the forwards we have yet another veteran from 2003 Steve Thomson doing the hooking duties. He scored England’s lone try in their defeat in Dublin earlier this year, but no doubt will give way to preferred starter Dylan Hartley at some stage.

One interesting name on the team sheet in the forwards is that of Northampton Saints’ Tom Wood. He was cruelly robbed of a Heineken Cup final appearance by a hairline leg fracture and many feel he should start for England at the World Cup. He is on the bench Saturday but will surely get some game time where he will be well tested against Ireland’s back row.

You can be sure England will want to avenge their defeat earlier in the year plus restore confidence in the fans after their poor showing in Cardiff in their last outing. No doubt the extra week’s rest will be an advantage for them as well.

Ronan O’Gara takes the starting out-half role for Ireland so it will be very interesting to see what kind of tactics he employs. If he is allowed play his natural territory game I feel we could get on top of this game early but there’s always the chance the coaching staff will want to see him run a passing game much like he did in Bordeaux, in which case we’ll see how our centre pairing of Gordon D’Arcy and Keith Earls stack up against their opposite numbers.

In the Irish pack, we could well be seeing the World Cup starting 8 taking the field, barring Sean O’Brien who is rested with hopefully a temporary knock.

Although Rory Best was much improved at hooker last week, Irish fans will no doubt be delighted to see Jerry Flannery pulling on the number 2 jersey once again, and in particular our line outs will be a key area where we will hope to secure regular possession.

Another welcome returnee to Test rugby is of course Tommy Bowe. He seems to have a knack of bagging tries against England and you wouldn’t bet against him doing just that on Saturday.

Of course being so close now to the World Cup, there are many who question the wisdom of playing such an high-intensity fixture, but when asked at the team announcement if his players will be playing at full pelt on the day, Declan Kidney calmly replied : “There’s no other way to play in an Irish jersey”

On the prediction front, as always I’m looking to our forwards’ performance at the breakdown as the key to victory. We can’t expect an exact replica of the game back in March as the circumstances are so different. We need to get a grip on what referee Nigel Owens is calling as early as possible and if we can do this and adjust or game accordingly, I think we have more than enough to come out on top, so I reckon we’ll do so by around 5-7pts.

And of course when the final whistle blows on Saturday that will be it – our next action will be in the World Cup itself in New Plymouth on September 11 against ironically Eddie O’Sullivan’s USA. Here’s hoping we can get through Saturday with the final 30-man squad still in fine fettle!

As always, enjoy your rugby this weekend wherever you are. JLP

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