England v Ireland
The team that scored the most tries has won the Six Nations in 10 of 15 seasons. However it is also true that in recent years, a low penalty count (5 of previous 6 winners had best discipline) and error count (last 3 winners missed the fewest tackles) have also been important.
When Ireland won the title in 2009, they conceded an average of 22 combined penalties and turnovers a match, while last year they averaged 20.8 a game. Over the last 6 seasons they are the only team to average under 23 combined penalties and turnovers and so far in 2015 it is just 17.5. England are next best this season, with an average of 19.5.
There are a few reasons to back up the idea that this might be a low scoring contest. With both sides unbeaten it has been built up as a potential championship decider and those sort of games do tend to see the desire not to lose take priority over going out to try and win it.
There has been an average of 35 total points when England have visited Ireland in the 6Nations since 2000 and average of 29 points in the 7 meetings at all venues since 2009.
Since November 2012, Ireland have conceded an average of 14.7 points a game, which drops to 13.8 points when looking at the 15 matches since Joe Schmidt took over.
They’ve won 6/7 matches in this competition since 2014, by an average score of 25-9. The loss came against England. After a run of 7/8 wins against that opponent from 2004-2011, Ireland have lost four in a row against Stuart Lancaster’s team and scored just the 1 try in close to 6 hours (354 minutes).
England won away in round 1 without many of Lancaster’s ‘lieutenant’s’ and they make the trip to Ireland without 13 of the 20 most picked players since 2012. Included in that group is Mike Brown who had made 26 consecutive Test starts before this weekend and has made the most metres a match in this period ( http://www.rugbyworld.com/countries/england-countries/rugby-statistics-the-england-players-under-stuart-lancaster-43293 ). That might not be a surprise given a fullback is going to rack up metres from kick returns, but he has also regularly beaten defenders (average of 3.8 a game) and proved capable of counterattacks that can lift the team.
His replacement Alex Goode is in decent form and was in the 15 shirt for the 12-6 win in this fixture in 2013. Ireland have a backline stocked with players that have experience at fullback and that may have influenced the selection of Jack Nowell (who has been playing at 13 in recent games for Exeter) over Jonny May. May was selected for 6 consecutive Tests in 2014, dropped for 2 and then given another 6 Tests before this match. He is the second most picked winger by Lancaster (after Ashton) but his position clearly isn’t secure.
There is a familiar spine to the Ireland team, with Ross making his 16th start under Schmidt in 16 matches, Best, Toner and Kearney their 14th, Sexton, Murray and O’Connell their 13th and O’Mahony 12th.
The idea of this match being a tactical kicking battle has dominated the build-up and while that can’t really be disputed the confrontation up front can’t be ignored. Joe Marler got the better of former Quins team mate Mike Ross in the scrums in their recent European matches but England did lose 4/9 of their own scrum against Ireland last year. With Heaslip missing this will also be a big test for Jordi Murphy.
Rather than attempt to pick a winner, am sitting on the fence and instead backing the low scoring angle. Under 37.5 total points (at 1.8) has occurred in 6 of the previous 7 matches between the teams at all venues and 6/8 games when England have visited Ireland since 2001. Under 2.5 tries is 2.5, while the draw is 21.0
The home side has won 10/12 6Nations games with Joubert in charge. There has been at least one card on England’s previous 4 trips to Ireland in this competition, with Joubert giving 2 in 2009. This referee only averages 0.5 cards per Test though over the past few seasons and the same rate at Super Rugby level.
Ireland: 15 Rob Kearney, 14 Tommy Bowe, 13 Jared Payne, 12 Robbie Henshaw, 11 Simon Zebo, 10 Jonathan Sexton, 9 Conor Murray, 8 Jordi Murphy, 7 Sean O’Brien, 6 Peter O’Mahony, 5 Paul O’Connell (c), 4 Devin Toner, 3 Mike Ross, 2 Rory Best, 1 Jack McGrath.
Replacements: 16 Sean Cronin, 17 Cian Healy, 18 Martin Moore, 19 Iain Henderson, 20 Tommy O’Donnell, 21 Eoin Reddan, 22 Ian Madigan, 23 Felix Jones
England: 15 Alex Goode, 14 Anthony Watson, 13 Jonathan Joseph, 12 Luther Burrell, 11 Jack Nowell, 10 George Ford, 9 Ben Youngs, 8 Billy Vunipola, 7 Chris Robshaw (c), 6 James Haskell, 5 George Kruis, 4 Dave Attwood, 3 Dan Cole, 2 Dylan Hartley, 1 Joe Marler.
Replacements: 16 Tom Youngs, 17 Mako Vunipola, 18 Henry Thomas, 19 Nick Easter, 20 Tom Croft, 21 Richard Wigglesworth, 22 Danny Cipriani, 23 Billy Twelvetrees.