By Phil Rice
At the beginning of the 2019 Six Nations Ireland were basking in a comfort zone borne from an exceptional 12 months the previous year and the promise of a potential World Cup winning year ahead.
After their first 80 minutes of the tournament, Ireland had imploded, as England exploded the dreams of Joe Schmidt’s team.
The pain of the heavy defeat was still felt as the team boarded the plane to Japan.
Another comprehensive loss to the same opponents, in a World Cup warm up match, reminded the Irish boys of the superiority of Eddie Jones’ team and put their ambitions into perspective.
England went on to reach the final in Japan, destroying the All Blacks on route. In their previous game the All Blacks had smashed Ireland – further evidence that England are a team of superior talent to the boys in green.
So why should Ireland have genuine hopes of upsetting the current form book between the two sides, on Sunday?
There is evidence that England are suffering the aftereffects of the unexpected disappointment of being well beaten by South Africa in the final in Japan.
Defeat by France in their first Six Nations game, followed by a narrow win over Scotland, has done nothing to allay this theory.
Ireland on the other hand are coming off the back of an excellent win over Grand Slam holders Wales.
Flimsy evidence perhaps that Andy Farrell’s team should be strutting confidently into Twickenham, but at least some grounds for optimism.
The nature of the win over Wales is perhaps the most encouraging aspect.
The team appear to have shed the formulaic approach of Joe Schmidt and replaced it with a more expansive game plan, with the players encouraged to express themselves without the fear of a Monday morning rollicking for any mistakes they might have made.
Johnny Sexton has taken over as captain and it is clear that his new coach is happy for him to take a lead role not only on the pitch but also in the build-up and in development of the game plan.
Sexton has responded in style to the belief entrusted in him by his coach.
Never short of an opinion, Sexton has revelled in the responsibility he has been given and it is clear that his teammates are enjoying the new-found freedom they’ve been handed.
— Irish Rugby (@IrishRugby) February 13, 2020
Farrell has not made wholesale changes as many people were calling for, after the dismal showing in Japan.
Instead he has allowed the tried and trusted players to show why they should be retained, while the talented wannabes bide their time on the sidelines.
The response has been significant as CJ Stander, Peter O’Mahony, Conor Murray and others have upped their standards, knowing that each game might be their last if they don’t perform.
John Cooney, Caolan Doris, Max Deegan, Ronan Kelleher and Will Conners are snapping at the heels of the jersey holders, and the effect has been remarkable on the established players.
“It was a super session and we both took a huge amount out of it. We’ve used this week well.”
— Irish Rugby (@IrishRugby) February 13, 2020
There is no doubt these promising players will gradually be introduced into the team, but Farrell has made sure that they earn their stripes first.
Twenty-minute appearances off the bench have demonstrated how much these ‘players in waiting’ have to offer and the future of Irish rugby looks a lot brighter than it did after the disappointment of the World Cup.
England will still go into Sunday’s game as strong favourites but there is greater optimism that Ireland will perform considerably better than they did in the last two games against them.
Jones’ team is clearly missing the considerable presence of Billy Vunipola at number 8, and the performances of some of his leading players has certainly dipped in the past two games.
— Irish Rugby (@IrishRugby) February 9, 2020
The fact that England’s captain is the son of Ireland’s new coach, adds a unique sub plot to proceedings.
Owen Farrell has shown unexpected frailty so far in the tournament, but will surely want to have the bragging rights at the family dinner table.
Jones knows that his team will have to perform considerably better than they have in the tournament to date.
— Guinness Six Nations (@SixNationsRugby) February 16, 2020
While victory would be outstanding, Andy Farrell will at least want his team to maintain their upward curve in the quality of their performances.
The result of the game in Cardiff between Wales and France this Saturday will have a considerable bearing on the Championship hopes of both England and Ireland.
A Welsh victory will lead to an exciting climax over the two remaining weeks, with potentially four teams vying for the title.