England have an opportunity to solidify their status as Six Nations title contenders when they take on Ireland at Twickenham on Saturday, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
England made a solid start to the tournament when they ground out a win over Scotland in the first round, while they turned on the style in the second half to whip Italy 40-9 on Valentine’s Day.
However, Eddie Jones’s men will now face their first serious test as they come up against an Ireland side that will be smarting after making a sluggish start to the Six Nations, drawing one game and losing another.
It will be England’s first game at home this season, and there have certainly been enough signs to suggest they should have the necessary firepower to secure their third successive win.
Jones has made subtle tactical substitutions each week and this time has opted to bring talented lock Maro Itoje and loosehead prop Joe Marler in to start against the defending champs.
Having managed to attain just one log point this season, Ireland’s hold on the Six Nations title is hanging by a thread, and instead it’s England who could make a strong claim for top northern hemisphere honours if they are able to secure a third successive victory.
It would also set them up nicely for their decisive final two fixtures against Wales and France.
England – 15 Mike Brown, 14 Anthony Watson, 13 Jonathan Joseph, 12 Owen Farrell, 11 Jack Nowell, 10 George Ford, 9 Ben Youngs, 8 Billy Vunipola, 7 James Haskell, 6 Chris Robshaw, 5 George Kruis, 4 Maro Itoje, 3 Dan Cole, 2 Dylan Hartley (c), 1 Joe Marler.
Subs: 16 Jamie George, 17 Mako Vunipola, 18 Paul Hill, 19 Courtney Lawes, 20 Jack Clifford, 21 Danny Care, 22 Danny Care, 23 Alex Goode.
Ireland – 15 Rob Kearney, 14 Andrew Trimble, 13 Robbie Henshaw, 12 Stuart McCloskey, 11 Keith Earls, 10 Johnny Sexton, 9 Conor Murray, 8 Jamie Heaslip, 7 Josh van der Flier, 6 CJ Stander, 5 Devin Toner, 4 Donnacha Ryan, 3 Mike Ross, 2 Rory Best (c), 1 Jack McGrath.
Subs: 16 Richardt Strauss, 17 Cian Healy, 18 Nathan White, 19 Ultan Dillane, 20 Rhys Ruddock, 21 Eoin Reddan, 22 Ian Madigan, 23 Simon Zebo.
Wales vs France
Wales bounced back from their opening round draw against Ireland to claim a hard-fought 27-23 victory over Scotland in week two.
Perhaps most encouraging was the return to form of big winger George North, and the manner in which Wales finished against Scotland will give them hope of picking up where they left off.
Wales have had their injury worries in the lead-up to this match, but in the end made only one enforced change, while a reshuffle in the loose trio sees Taulupe Faletau, Sam Warburton and Dan Lydiate combining in the back row.
Meanwhile, France head coach Guy Novès has opted to make five changes to his side, notably giving scrumhalf Maxime Machenaud the nod ahead of Sébastien Bézy.
France caught many by surprise when they edged Ireland in the last round of the Six Nations, but it’s hard to see them managing an upset in Cardiff, with Les Bleus having last beaten Wales some four years ago.
Wales – 15 Liam Williams, 14 Alex Cuthbert, 13 Jonathan Davies, 12 Jamie Roberts, 11 George North, 10 Dan Biggar, 9 Gareth Davies, 8 Taulupe Faletau, 7 Sam Warburton (c), 6 Dan Lydiate, 5 Alun Wyn Jones, 4 Bradley Davies, 3 Samson Lee, 2 Scott Baldwin, 1 Rob Evans.
Subs: Ken Owens, Gethin Jenkins, Tom Francis, Jake Ball, Justin Tipuric, Lloyd Williams, Rhys Priestland, Gareth Anscombe.
France – 15 Maxime Médard, 14 Virimi Vakatawa, 13 Maxime Mermoz, 12 Jonathan Danty, 11 Djibril Camara, 10 Jules Plisson, 9 Maxime Machenaud, 8 Damien Chouly, 7 Antoine Burban, 6 Wenceslas Lauret, 5 Alexandre Flanquart, 4 Paul Jedrasiak, 3 Rabah Slimani, 2 Guilhem Guirado (c), 1 Jefferson Poirot.
Subs: 16 Camille Chat, 17 Vincent Pelo, 18 Uini Atonio, 19 Yoann Maestri, 20 Loann Goujon, 21 Sébastien Bézy, 22 François Trinh-Duc, 23 Gaël Fickou.
Italy vs Scotland
So often the battle for the wooden spoon, this looks likely to be the case once again, with Italy and Scotland having both suffered back-to-back Six Nations defeats.
The two sides have shown signs of fight this season, though, and England certainly didn’t have it all their own way in their opening two matches against either side.
Scotland are on a nine-match losing streak in the Six Nations, but Vern Cotter’s settled side surely have a golden opportunity to finally break that poor run of results on Saturday.
Italy – 15 Daivid Odiete, 14 Leonardo Sarto, 13 Michele Campagnaro, 12 Gonzalo Garcia, 11 Mattia Bellini, 10 Kelly Haimona, 9 Edoardo Gori, 8 Sergio Parisse (c), 7 Alessandro Zanni, 6 Francesco Minto, 5 Joshua Furno, 4 Marco Fuser, 3 Lorenzo Cittadini, 2 Leonardo Ghiraldini, 1 Andrea Lovotti.
Subs: 16 Davide Giazzon, 17 Matteo Zanusso, 18 Martin Castrogiovanni, 19 Valerio Bernabo, 20 Andries van Schalkwyk, 21 Guglielmo Palazzani, 22 Edoardo Padovani, 23 Andrea Pratichetti.
Scotland – 15 Stuart Hogg, 14 Tommy Seymour, 13 Mark Bennett, 12 Duncan Taylor, 11 Tim Visser, 10 Finn Russell, 9 Greig Laidlaw (c), 8 David Denton, 7 John Hardie, 6 John Barclay, 5 Jonny Gray, 4 Richie Gray, 3 WP Nel, 2 Ross Ford, 1 Alasdair Dickinson.
Subs: 16 Stuart McInally, 17 Rory Sutherland, 18 Moray Low, 19 Tim Swinson, 20 Ryan Wilson, 21 Sam Hidalgo-Cayne, 22 Peter Horne, 23 Sean Lamont.
Photo: Stu Forster/Getty Images