Ireland v England is already being billed as the Six Nations decider despite taking place in only the third round of the competition. The assumption that the result of this game will be pivotal to the championship may seem premature; however, as the top two in the standings, one of Ireland and England will be bidding farewell to a potential Grand Slam for another year.
England enter this encounter having beaten the odds in emerging victorious over Wales in a tightly fought battle at the Millennium Stadium and by securing a convincing 47-17 win against Italy at Twickenham. A relatively inexperienced English side have performed well given the multitude of injuries to many of its first choice players in the run up to the competition.
Ireland had an easier start to their campaign. They beat wooden-spoon favourites Italy by a comfortable but not emphatic 3-26. A visiting French side posed a greater threat in round two but still Ireland triumphed with the returning Johnny Sexton deservingly awarded man of the match.
The key to victory at the Aviva Stadium on March 1st will undoubtedly be the contest at fly half. The match will see England’s George Ford and Ireland’s Johnny Sexton go head-to-head in what promises to be a compelling encounter.
Ford has stormed onto the international stage and is being held up as one of the poster boys of a new wave of English rugby talent. Since becoming the only Englishman to win IRB Junior Player of the Year in 2011, Ford has impressed in the Premiership at both Leicester and Bath. With the likes of Farrell nipping at his heels, Ford won’t be able to get comfortable in the number 10 jersey but he seems to be settling into the role with relative ease.
Up against him will be Johnny Sexton – one of five players nominated as the World Rugby Player of the Year by the IRB last year. Sexton may be approaching half a century in caps but his success goes beyond longevity. The Irishman was the top points scorer in last year’s Six Nations which saw Ireland take the title and was named man of the match in Ireland’s 29-15 win over South Africa in November contributing 14 points through his boot – not to mention a successful Lions tour to Australia in 2013.
Sexton may have spent 12 weeks away from the game to recover from repeated concussions but the break doesn’t seem to have stifled his flow. If his performance against France was anything to go by the Irishman returned to his commanding best, scoring 15 of his country’s 18 points and escaping from some incredible clashes with 120kg worth of Mathieu Bastareaud with just a bruised and bloodied eye.
There is little doubt who would come off worse in a Sexton-Ford clash with the Irishman measuring both taller and heavier. Ford weighs just 80kg, two thirds of Bastareaud’s weight, and whilst Ford has managed to carry his outstanding club form over to his performances for England, it remains to be seen whether these stand up to the world-class brilliance consistently displayed by Sexton.
With both home advantage and nine successive wins under their belt Ireland will be a formidable task for England. No doubt that given his current form England will opt for Ford’s trusty boot when Ireland concede penalties but they could well find his impressive passing game thwarted by an excellent Irish defence which has only conceded one try all tournament.
England need serious improvement, especially in defence if they want to beat a sturdy Irish unit and enter the World Cup with the Six Nations trophy in their cabinet. It will be a tall order for Ford and England to come out on top against Sexton and co. England clearly have a very promising future ahead with the likes of Jonathan Joseph and Anthony Watson bursting onto the scene, but I feel this Six Nations is Ireland’s for the taking. If they can overcome England, two Celtic clashes away from home stand between Ireland and their first ever back-to-back Six Nations titles. Whilst neither Murrayfield nor the Millennium Stadium are ever easy places to visit, it’s hard to imagine that Ireland will let this opportunity go.
Ellie is a sports writer and blogger based in Wales. Follow her on twitter @caddicksport