Grumpy old-fashioned types won’t agree, but when it comes to pre-match build-ups Wales have won the Six Nations already.
No one will top the sight and sound of the throbbing carnival they put on ahead of kick-off against England at the Millennium Stadium earlier this month. As someone that doesn’t get to watch rugby internationals as often as I’d like, that sensory overload certainly lit my fuse box ahead of a pulsating tournament opener. It was brilliantly done.
I’m not expecting the Irish to unfurl such a fancy welcome mat for Stuart Lancaster’s side in Dublin on Sunday afternoon. The Aviva Stadium’s pre-match hype will, I suspect, be of simpler more traditional fare.
There’s no need for too much pageantry either. If these two sides – currently the northern hemisphere’s finest – both play to their potential, the players will supply more than enough fireworks, flames and pyrotechnics to keep us entertained. I’m expecting a high quality, absorbing rugby match that could go either way until the end.
According to the official IRB rankings, just 0.17 points separate England in third from Joe Schmidt’s Ireland in fourth, and that’s as evenly matched as it gets inside the world’s top ten. You can argue an equally strong case for either team to prevail.
Home advantage means the Irish are slight favourites with the bookies, and on the back of a nine-match winning streak (since losing 13-10 to England at Twickenham last year) that’s a fair assessment.
Much will depend on how fly half Johnny Sexton is contained.
The Lions star is fully fit and looked in great nick against France a fortnight ago, having suffered an incredible FOUR bouts of separate, successive concussion; ill fortune that’s left him sat on the sidelines for the best part of the last three months.
The Shamrocks aren’t quite the same without the 29-year-old orchestrating intricate moves and kicking with unerring precision, so if this England side is serious about keeping their Grand Slam dreams alive he’ll have to be stopped.
Inside the England dressing room that will feel as if it’s do-able, not least because head coach Lancaster seems to have the measure over the Irish.
He has three wins from three against them in the Six Nations, and significantly, Ireland have averaged just eight points per game in those encounters. When you consider Schmidt’s intelligent outfit put 29 and 26 points on the board against South Africa and Australia in the autumn, that’s a phenomenal effort.
England are well aware what they must do.
If they can dominate the scrum and lineouts, while knocking Sexton out of his stride when the ball comes his way, a fourth straight win against the defending Six Nations champions is theirs for the taking.
Lancaster’s England side has guts. No matter how hostile it gets (as they proved in Wales) they will puff out their chest and fight, with or without the Twickenham roar. He’s forged a unit that possess an encouraging amount of resolve.
England’s play is no longer mechanical either. For years they’ve been all force and no flair, but that’s changing. Man of the moment Jonathan Joseph – and others in the back line – can react to situations with impromptu brilliance; and this is an ingredient they’ll need if they’re to win the World Cup on home soil later in the year. You can’t pre-plan your every move at the very highest level. Instinctive game changers like Joseph are worth their weight in gold.
Victory over Ireland won’t suddenly make England world champions elect (the All Blacks will take some stopping on that score) but a Six Nations success, and maybe even a Grand Slam to boot, would send them into that tournament next autumn with a timely injection of self-belief.
England have finished second in the championship three times in a row under Lancaster, so it’s high time they shed the bridesmaid tag. This is the match that will make or break that goal.
Defeat won’t be a disaster, but if they can prove they’re winners in Dublin, England’s chances of illuminating their own World Cup are sure to sky rocket.
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