may 2019
I believe England will be Ireland’s hardest game of this year’s campaign.

Scotland travel to Dublin in next week’s Super Saturday, which will also be a tough match for the Irish, but I really do think this could - and should - be England’s best performance yet. That opinion may fly in the face of the consensus, but it’s going to be a lot closer than people think.

In the same way nobody gave England a chance against South Africa in the World Cup semi-final, which ended with us losing by a single point to the eventual champions, we’re being similarly written off this weekend. That should suit us just fine.

Normally when you play for England, the expectation is that you should win and win well. But because of our current run of form, some clunky performances that culminated in that loss to Scotland - not to mention, most importantly, how incredible Ireland are playing - that’s not what the general public is thinking at all.

In our last three games against Ireland, we’ve still been in the game at 60 minutes, and that’s with a red card in each one of them. Last year it was Freddie Steward, in 2022 it was Billy Vunipola, and the year before that it was Charlie Ewels.

It’s interesting that Jamie Heaslip has said that Ireland would need to go down to 14 or 13 men for England to be in with a shout of winning, because it’s exactly those sorts of game-changing moments that can dictate results anyway. It could be an interception, foul play, or any one of those incidents that led to Duhan van Der Merwe’s incredible hat-trick in the Calcutta Cup match. If we can drag them into an arm-wrestle, if the crowd get behind us - the underdogs - the pressure could turn on Ireland very quickly.

The blueprint for a good England performance was on show in the first 20 minutes against Scotland when we controlled the style of game that was played, executed our game plan and dictated the terms. We can take Ireland into a game that’s uncomfortable for them. Our defence has been do-or-bust, but I’m confident that on Saturday it will be different to anything Ireland have experienced.

While I can’t imagine Andy Farrell paying too much attention to what he expects England to do - they’ll be 95% focused on themselves - there is a game I think they might look at in terms of countering what England will bring to the table. Exeter play a similar blitz defence to England, and when Munster went to Sandy Park in the Champions Cup in December, their answer to that was a lot of cross-field kicks, especially off second receiver, which was very effective.

If you execute it right, it’s a free forward pass. But that’s just it: it is hard to execute. Their defence gets high, preventing you from passing the ball out; but if you have a good kicking game you cut that defensive line out of the equation completely.

Duhan van der Merwe deserves all the praise he’s been getting after his Calcutta Cup hat-trick. He’s got to be considered one of the best wingers in the world right now because he’s consistently scoring impressive tries against top teams. His whole game is consistent as well: if he’s not scoring tries, you know what you’re getting with him. You’re getting his ball-carrying, his physicality. The players who enter that conversation of ‘world’s best’ have got a foundation that’s specific to them. When you’re not scoring, how good can you be?

Pertinent for England this weekend is another winger who’s up there with Duhan right now. James Lowe’s foundation is his physicality and his kicking game. Like Duhan, he operates within a system that allows him to get the ball and carry, so even if they’re in a game that isn’t particularly open, they’re finding carrying opportunities and being a handful for the opposition. Added to that, Lowe’s left-foot kicking game is significant. He’s probably the best kicker out of hand on the pitch, hitting the ball ten metres further than everybody else. Ireland know they can either go to their ten, Jack Crowley, or whizz it back to Lowe, who just hits monstrous kicks.

Ireland have risen to the top of the world game twice, but this time around they’ve done it even better. Going into the 2019 Championship, they were on fire as the Grand Slam holders and fresh from beating the All Blacks in the autumn. We played them first up in Dublin and it was probably the best game I’ve played in for England. We executed a plan. Ireland weren’t poor, but we beat them very well, going against what people thought would happen. After that they seemed to hover a bit, but leading up to last year’s World Cup, and now, they’ve been excellent. They shouldn’t be disheartened by losing that quarter-final to New Zealand - although I know they will be - which was one of the best games I’ve ever seen.

The knives may be out for England, but for them to go into this game as underdogs, when people are criticising them, is probably just the fuel they need. I’m excited to see them go.