The Tight Five is back this week as we pick out our handful of big talking points, ahead of Ireland's trip to face England at Twickenham.
FULL OF PORTER
Tadhg Furlong hasn't played a minute of rugby since the 23rd of February, and the fact we've spoken so little about the absence of one of the best tighthead props in the world is a testament to the performances of Andrew Porter.
The Irish scrum has been a rock for the last half-decade, and it's shown no signs of going backwards in the recent games against Italy, France and Wales. Ireland were dominant against Wales at scrumtime last Friday, and most of the pressure seemed to be coming from Porter onto his opposing loosehead Rhys Carre, who coughed up a number of penalties through collapsing, even before the ball had been set.
Supporting Porter was Quinn Roux, who had arguably the best performance of his 14 caps to date, reinforcing the importance of a powerful tight-side second row; something which was a major issue leading into last year's World Cup.
Despite the dodgy hair, @QuinnRoux adds a massive amount of ballast when he's behind you. Got winded by him once when he was at Leinster because he threw me into the scrum machine so hard#irevwal
— Mike Ross (@MikeRoss03) November 13, 2020
With Iain Henderson available again, Roux may have to drop out, but given his size, power and performance against Wales, it might be a good time for Andy Farrell to play the hot-hand, and give Porter and the Irish scrum some extra oomph.
SET PIECE DEFENCE
Holding the scrum steady is just one aspect, but Ireland's defensive sets for both scrum and lineout will be particularly important.
In England's routine win against Georgia on Saturday, thee demonstrated their ability to use the setpieces as a platform for tries, rather than a means to milk penalties.
All six of their tries owed to a steady set-piece, and innovation; from the lineout Jamie George touched down three times at the back of rolling mauls, while they also demonstrated their ability to go off the top of the lineout with Elliot Daly finishing off a sublime strike play to score their fourth try.
And while the first and last tries of the day for Jack Willis and Dan Robson weren't first phase scores, both came off the back of front-foot ball which took defenders out of the game.
Ireland have to play a balancing game at lineout time, with a decision to be made over how much they commit to disrupting the throw, while being able to sack the jumper before England can establish a maul.
And when England do go off the top, collective linespeed is essential.
POWER POWER POWER
Ireland only seem beat England when Manu Tuilagi is unavailable, but crucially that doesn't mean Ireland always beat England when Manu Tuilagi is unavailable.
Ireland's most recent wins against England in 2015, 17 and 18 all came with the Sale centre out injured, and a common theme of defeats to England in recent years has been the inability to deal with the ball carrying and dominant tackles of not just Tuilagi, but the likes of Maro Itoje, Billy Vunipola, Jamie George etc.
An achilles injury means no Tuilagi this weekend, but even without him England have enough powerful carriers and tacklers to punish Ireland - enter Jack Willis to the backrow for example.
Given the recent history of these two sides, Ireland need to match England's physicality this weekend not just so they can stand a chance of winning the game, but so they can prove it to themselves.
If recent games have shown us anything, it's that Ireland are bringing more variety to their kicking game. Andy Farrell's side are still box-kicking when the time is right, but their overall kicking game has become less predictable.
James Lowe's arrival has brought a left-footed option, perfect for gaining territory and clearing lines, while Johnny Sexton seems to be incorporating more grubbers and crossfield kicks to his game.
Indeed, one of the final impacts he had on Friday's win versus Wales was a neat midfield grubber, which led to a penalty and a further three points for Ireland.
It was the type of play England have hit Ireland with consistently in recent years, putting the ball in behind a high defensive line, and a strong kick-chase meaning the opposition are retreating towards their own goal as they collect the ball.
Take the earlier meeting at Twickenham this year as an example.
FEEL THE BYRNE / BURNS
Ross Byrne or Billy Burns? Either way, we should be leaving Conor Murray off that table.
As mentioned in our first point, the reason we've barely lamented Tadhg Furlong's absence is that Ireland have had a replacement who was able to fill the void comfortably. It may be a generalisation, but one major reason Andrew Porter has been able to fill in so well is that he's trusted to play, even when Furlong is fighting fit. Props get rotated in and out earlier in each game, so Porter has built up the minutes.
The problem Ireland have is that when Johnny Sexton is unavailable - even for minor injuries - his absence is felt. His absence is felt because he's still the clear number one outhalf. Unfortunately, that's not going to change unless his peers are given the opportunity to play significant minutes.
As pointed out in The Tight Five a couple of weeks ago, Ross Byrne's minutes during the Six Nations were almost token, coming on when games were largely won and lost. Giving him the 10 shirt against England at Twickenham would be a huge vote of confidence, and a chance for him personally to avenge the World Cup warm-up humiliation at English HQ in 2019, a game in which a significant amount of blame was unfairly attributed to him.
The most likely outcome though is Byrne on the bench with Billy Burns starting - should he come through the return to paly protocols.
Either way, both need real game time in the next two weeks.
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