The former captain of Munster, Ireland, and the British and Irish Lions was embraced in camp as a reality check who could reinforce and remind the Irish of the nitty-gritty needed to get past England at Twickenham on Sunday and extend their Six Nations winning streak.
After Ireland’s 2019 slump, new coach Andy Farrell has been trying to leave no stone unturned — including methods of motivation — in his bid to revive the side.
So far, so good, with Scotland overcome despite a stuttering performance, and defending champion Wales upended. That efficient effort two weeks ago was a vast improvement on the Scotland game, but another level is necessary to prevail at Twickenham.
“We’ve pulled up big performances there before,” Ireland center Robbie Henshaw says.
“It’s a cauldron-like atmosphere when you’re playing there. You’re against a tough opposition and a tough crowd, we’re under no illusions. But that creates more excitement for us to go there.”
In trying to build on the impressive foundations laid by former boss Joe Schmidt, Farrell has loosened the coaching reins. He’s given the team a little more freedom, and more responsibility to solve problems.
Conor Murray, considered the veteran most at risk of being dropped, has answered Farrell’s faith with reliable calmness and accuracy under pressure that has helped him to fend off John Cooney’s considerable claims to be the starting scrumhalf.
The back three of Jacob Stockdale, Andrew Conway and notably fullback Jordan Larmour have also combined into an exciting attacking option.
Retired captain Rory Best recently said there were too many good players still pulling on the green jersey for Ireland not to be successful, and that has England on edge a little more, evident in respectful comments this week.
Back in the title race after surviving Scotland two weeks ago, England will just as quickly be out of it if it loses to Ireland at Twickenham for a fifth time in the Six Nations era.
“You expect a match with Ireland to be attritional,” England hooker Jamie George says. “You look at any Irish club team, they make you fight for absolutely everything. And it’s exactly the same with the national team. They’re, to a man, scrappers. And we’re fully prepared for that. When we’ve played well against these guys, we’ve fronted up physically. So that’s going to be at the forefront of our minds going into Sunday.”
Farrell’s tweaks to his lineup — he named an unchanged starting XV until lock Iain Henderson withdrew to be at the birth of his baby boy — have also been matched by tweaks to the game plan, as Ireland have sought a little more width. But England know what’s coming.
As flyhalf George Ford says, “The stuff Ireland are notoriously good at is the contact area, the kicking game, in the air, and the contest at the breakdown. It is something they are very good at and why would you go away from it if you are very good at it?”
England has yet to fire up in the championship after the opening loss to France, then enduring treacherous weather in Scotland. Appearing at Twickenham for the first time since reaching the Rugby World Cup final in Japan four months ago will be a morale boost.
England captain Owen Farrell has also yet to impose himself. He and his father, Andy Farrell, have played down their matchup as its not the first time, and they’re utter professionals. They’ve been on opposing sides four times since 2017. The record is 2-2, but this is the first time Andy is a head coach.
England: Elliot Daly, Jonny May, Manu Tuilagi, Owen Farrell (captain), Jonathan Joseph, George Ford, Ben Youngs; Tom Curry, Sam Underhill, Courtney Lawes, George Kruis, Maro Itoje, Kyle Sinckler, Jamie George, Joe Marler. Reserves: Luke Cowan-Dickie, Ellis Genge, Will Stuart, Joe Launchbury, Charlie Ewels, Ben Earl, Willi Heinz, Henry Slade.
Ireland: Jordan Larmour, Andrew Conway, Robbie Henshaw, Bundee Aki, Jacob Stockdale, Jonathan Sexton (captain), Conor Murray; CJ Stander, Josh van der Flier, Peter O’Mahony, James Ryan, Devin Toner, Tadhg Furlong, Rob Herring, Cian Healy. Reserves: Ronan Kelleher, Dave Kilcoyne, Andrew Porter, Ultan Dillane, Caelan Doris, John Cooney, Ross Byrne, Keith Earls.
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