|Six Nations Championship: England v Ireland|
|Venue: Twickenham Stadium Date: Sunday, 23 February Kick-off: 15:00 GMT|
|Coverage: Listen on BBC 5 Live Sports Extra & Radio Ulster; live text commentary on the BBC Sport website & app.|
There’s nothing quite like a game week at Twickenham. It’s the fixture I always really looked forward to as a player.
But in saying that, you can’t enjoy the occasion too much because of the white storm that awaits you.
At Twickenham, you find out what your players are made of when your backs are against the wall – and Andy Farrell is going to learn a lot about Ireland on Sunday.
It’s going to be an epic battle and one that England will really fancy.
So far, we haven’t seen a lot from Eddie Jones’ side, so they will be going out with a point to prove.
The physicality Ireland brought to Twickenham in 2018 gave them the edge and they will need to do the same this time around.
It’s easy enough in a couple of home games when you don’t play particularly well and still get the result. England at home is an entirely different story.
They have super power and physicality all over the pack. You just have to look at their back row, with effectively the three sevens probably going to play.
Any time Scotland touched the ball, England smashed them back behind the game line. The Scots couldn’t get any momentum and that’s what Ireland will be up against next weekend. It’s something they haven’t faced in the competition so far.
To that end, I’m a little bit disappointed that Farrell has opted to retain Peter O’Mahony in the back row instead of putting fit-again Caelan Doris in from the start after his debut against Scotland lasted only four minutes.
Pete was solid as ever in defence against Wales and made a couple of crucial turnovers but his carry total of four for a combined distance of 3.5 metres was fairly meagre.
You had CJ Stander making 18 to 20 carries and I just think it’s a bit unrealistic to expect him to have shoulder that kind of burden time after time.
Young Doris might just have been the man to take on some more of carrying load this weekend but that’s academic now after Farrell made his choice.
Who knows? Maybe Pete will prove me wrong, given the warrior he is.
Back three ‘very exciting’
Looking at the performance of Ireland’s backs to date in the championship, Jordan Larmour has been outstanding. He put a lot of responsibility on himself for his try against Wales and backed himself to the hilt.
Over the past five years, when have you seen Rob Kearney do that? His first thought was always to put boot to ball or take the ‘safety first’ option, meaning Ireland just haven’t had that extra dynamism Larmour provides.
It’s great to see that spark in Ireland’s back three. Andrew Conway also deserves the opportunity he’s getting and Jacob Stockdale’s work-rate remains impressive even though he is having a comparatively lean spell by his standards on the tries front.
Try-scoring opportunities will come for him if he just keeps plugging away.
Johnny Sexton said every time the back three touched the ball against Wales, you knew something was going to happen. You can’t disagree with that – and Johnny making that kind of comment suggests a team full of confidence.
In years gone by, Ireland have had one exceptional winger in Stockdale but now these three guys are working really well together and it is a very exciting prospect moving forward.
Backs wise, a further boon for Ireland is the versatility and impact capability that Keith Earls offers from the bench. I like the balance and options that gives.
Ireland ‘a little bit soft’
There’s no doubt that Ireland improved against Wales, but they will need to raise their performance in all the component parts to come away from Twickenham with a win.
It is noticeable that Ireland really up their defence when the opposition are five or 10 metres away from their try line. The question I would ask is: why can’t they do that when teams are 50 or 60 metres out from their line?
It’s maybe a mentality issue further up the pitch when the try line isn’t under as much threat.
Through defensive pressure, Ireland can put England in a position where they make unforced errors. That could mean England kicking the ball back to Ireland earlier in phase play than they would like. Stockdale, Conway and Larmour would be licking their lips at the thought of this.
At times, Ireland are a little bit soft defensively as they soak up a lot of tackles. Teams that do have waves of momentum, which England will, can dominate them if they don’t tighten up from 22 to 22.
There was a massive improvement in that regard against Wales. They way Ireland set up and went about their business was a big step up from the Scotland game, but, in truth, the Welsh front five seemed a bit leggy.
Ireland were efficient against Wales but by no means exceptional. They will need will to find another level to win at Twickenham.
This game is England’s year
Eddie Jones has come under a lot of criticism over his team selection and the comments he made in the build-up to the tournament.
But England still have a massive opportunity to win this Six Nations. If they can beat Ireland, then they can kick on from there and they will have as a good a chance as any side.
However in saying that, England have to be perfect over the next 240 minutes of rugby.
If Ireland lose, or even get a losing bonus point, then it’s not the end of the world and they can go again.
It’s a crucial game for both teams and the winner will have a great platform for the remainder of the tournament, but this game is more or less England’s year.
It’s win or bust for them. That’s the bottom line.
Stephen Ferris was speaking to BBC Sport’s Andy Gray.
Article courtesy of BBC Sport