Ireland will take on England for the first time in nearly a decade without Johnny Sexton or Conor Murray in their starting line-up on Saturday after Andy Farrell named an inexperienced half-back combination for Saturday’s Autumn Nations Cup showdown, but the absence of another high-profile player could well come to dictate how the encounter plays out.
The absence of Irish captain Sexton, forced by a hamstring strain suffered in last week’s win over Wales, and 89-Test veteran Conor Murray, who is left among the replacements, means Leinster fly-half Ross Byrne is trusted to marshall Ireland outside club colleague Jamison Gibson-Park, a pairing that have just two Test starts between them.
It is an area that England may look to expose by pressuring them in defence, just as they have done so in their last three outings. Earlier this year they secured a dominant 24-12 victory at Twickenham that could and should have been far larger given the dominance Eddie Jones’s side enjoyed, with the Six Nations victory coming six months after a record 57-15 thrashing in their World Cup warm up. The two wins came off the back of the victory that set England’s wheels in motion towards the Rugby World Cup final that year, with their 2019 Six Nations triumph in Dublin one of the performances of the Eddie Jones era to knock off the then-defending champions on their own turf.
But on all three of those occasions, England had a not-so-secret weapon: Manu Tuilagi.
The centre has featured six times against Ireland since his first appearance back in 2011, in a World Cup warm-up where he certainly made his presence felt. Tuilagi scored that day and nearly bagged another from an interception on his own 22, though Irish fans will also remember the painful memory of the tackle that ended David Wallace’s career that day.
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But rather notably, when Tuilagi plays, England win. Ireland have not won when the Sale Sharks midfielder has been involved, and given their back-to-back losses to the Irish in 2017 and 2018, his return to fitness 18 months ago and England’s sudden dominance in this fixture are no coincidence. Both sides operate on gainline success, and the presence of a 111kg powerhouse centre certainly helps to produce that.
Which is why his absence this week, and indeed through the whole of the Autumn Nations Cup and Six Nations next year due to a ruptured Achilles, provides the greatest intrigue of Saturday’s Twickenham encounter: can England beat Ireland without Tuilagi?
The answer is of course yes, but whether they have yet worked out how to do so remains a mystery. Though England have won their last two games by a cumulative 74-5, they did come against Italy and Georgia – tier two sides as both Eddie Jones and forwards coach Matt Proudfoot have hammered home in complete disregard of Italy’s efforts of late. Against an Irish side that has been battle-hardened by games against Wales and France in recent weeks, England’s attack will have to step up their performance if they are to succeed against a team led by one of the most renowned defensive coaches in the game.
But George Ford’s return to fitness from an Achilles injury that has sidelined the fly-half for the last month could go a long way to resolving that creative block.
Video: Wales Rugby Captain Alun Wyn Jones reacts to his side’s defeat against Ireland, which condemned them to a sixth successive loss. (Wales Online)
“Any team that has Manu in it is going to be a threat, and then not having him in there you probably don’t have as much of a threat,” Ford admitted.
“But I think the key about rugby and coming up with plans and executing plans is you’ve got to find different ways to win and different ways to achieve things. We’ve still got some brilliant ball carriers in and around the back line to do that job for us and also have a bit of variety.
“It’s not about smashing the door down every single time, you can get momentum in games elsewhere as well, so it’s about having that variety as well.”
Ford’s return not only brings an extra dimension in attack, with the Leicester stand-off among the most visually aware players in the game, but also adds a voice of clarity to a side that has at times lacked the direction needed to fight its way out of testing circumstances.
“Fordy is an unbelievably talented rugby player, and when you have that experience coming in and the way he directs a team around the field, he comes in and you hear that communication and you see the way the players take it,” Proudfoot said.
“That is great. To see him coming in with the attitude to really stake a claim for himself, he is pushing hard to try and get into the 23. When a player with that experience has that mindset, it is a great asset. That is replicated throughout the week with other players. Everybody is pushing hard to try and get on that team list.”
Ford stressed that he’s ready to go after recovering from a “niggling” Achilles injury that had been affecting him for some time, with his ankle “feeling as good as it has ever done” after returning to full training on Wednesday. The England camp will be praying that is the case on Saturday given an important aspect of their last three victories over Ireland has been the impact of their tactical kicking behind the back three. Together with Owen Farrell and Elliot Daly, Ford has been able to pin back the Irish and force errors, which helped to produce two tries in the 2019 Six Nations victory and two more again in 2020.
But, he stresses, that does not come down to smart tactics and clever kicking. “It’s funny because the kicking game gets spoken about a lot, but it’s actually the intent to run first with ball in hand that opens kicking space up,” he added.
“So we need to get momentum, get speed of ball and have options across the field to get the ball into space at the right time and manipulate the backfield, and that’s pretty much the order it goes in really. It’s not a case of ‘right let’s go try find space in the backfield’ from the very off, there’s a process to doing it.
“We need to make sure that our detail in attack, plus our intent and our breakdown is probably better than ever before because obviously Ireland are very good at the breakdown too.”
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