Ireland go to Twickenham seeking breakthrough road win
For all of Ireland’s resurgence under coach Andy Farrell, one significant milestone continues to elude them.
That is going to another major team’s turf, defying the hostile crowd and beating them.
Ireland has yet to pull that off in the Farrell era.
Their biggest away games since the 2019 Rugby World Cup — England 2020, France 2020, Wales 2021, France 2022 — have all ended in defeat.
Ireland has another shot at a breakthrough result on Saturday when it faces England at Twickenham in a crunch Six Nations match for both.
The winner will stay in the title race with championship leader France and the loser will not.
The Irish are, in the words of England coach Eddie Jones, “red-hot favorites,” but until they knock over the likes of England on its own patch, there will be a measure of doubt about their quality no matter how strong is their self-belief.
“It’s massively important for us (to get that away win),” Ireland reserve hooker Rob Herring said. “Against France (last month) we played really well, we just didn’t come on the right side. Going away to England, we challenge ourselves to play the game we want to play and not be afraid.
“To do it in a cauldron like Twickenham, it’s a different experience. For the growth of the group it’ll be really good for us to go and put in a good performance.”
The group, winner of 10 of its last 11 tests, is brewing something special, which is why captain and conductor Jonathan Sexton agreed this week to extend his Irish contract a last time for another 18 months to the end of the 2023 Rugby World Cup in France. After that, he’s retiring.
Sexton is set to play his last Six Nations game at Twickenham, where he’s won only twice in the championship.
Still playing at an elite level, his influence will be crucial to Ireland’s chances. Along with his veteran composure.
“There’s never any lack of intent, or passion, or emotion when these boys play for Ireland,” forwards coach Paul O’Connell said. “It’s just being calm on the big occasion.”
The Irish thrashed England 32-18 in Dublin a year ago, giving hints of Farrell’s new up-tempo gameplan that came to fruition in November.
The change has yet to yield that key win on the road, however, but Farrell said that’s the goal.
“Our intention,” the coach said, “is to go over there (Twickenham) and prove to ourselves that there’s a performance in there from us that’s a step above what we’ve shown already.”
But Jones didn’t believe Ireland will be able to handle England.
“We play with a physicality they haven’t seen before,” he boasted.
“We are going to chase them hard down the street. Everywhere they go, we’re going to be in their faces and we’re going to take time and space away from them. This team don’t know how good they can be, and we are certainly going to find out on Saturday how good we can be.”
Aside from naming Sexton after beating 13-man Italy 57-6, Farrell also brought in Cian Healy, James Ryan, Bundee Aki, Andrew Conway and Hugo Keenan. They are an upgrade on the team which went to Paris last month.
England kept its changes to a minimum. Hooker Jamie George, No. 8 Sam Simmonds and center Joe Marchant have returned.
They have rebounded from the opening loss to Scotland with wins over Italy and Wales, but England’s attack -- aside from tyro flyhalf Marcus Smith — has been criticized for a lack of initiative.
“We’re moving in the right direction,” Jones said, “but like any team it’s not in a straight line.”
England: Freddie Steward, Max Malins, Joe Marchant, Henry Slade, Jack Nowell, Marcus Smith, Harry Randall; Sam Simmonds, Tom Curry, Courtney Lawes (captain), Charlie Ewels, Maro Itoje, Kyle Sinckler, Jamie George, Ellis Genge. Reserves: Jamie Blamire, Joe Marler, Will Stuart, Joe Launchbury, Alex Dombrandt, Ben Youngs, George Ford, Elliot Daly.
Ireland: Hugo Keenan, Andrew Conway, Garry Ringrose, Bundee Aki, James Lowe, Jonathan Sexton (captain), Jamison Gibson-Park; Caelan Doris, Josh van der Flier, Peter O’Mahony, James Ryan, Tadhg Beirne, Tadhg Furlong, Dan Sheehan, Cian Healy. Reserves: Rob Herring, Dave Kilcoyne, Finlay Bealham, Iain Henderson, Jack Conan, Conor Murray, Joey Carbery, Robbie Henshaw.
More AP rugby: https://apnews.com/hub/rugby and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports