England vs. Ireland: 5 Key Battles That Will Shape 2016 RBS 6 Nations Clash

Danny Coyle@dannyjpcoyleFeatured ColumnistFebruary 26, 2016

England vs. Ireland: 5 Key Battles That Will Shape 2016 RBS 6 Nations Clash

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    England will go in search of their third straight win in the 2016 RBS Six Nations as they entertain Ireland at Twickenham.

    After two wins on the road, this will be Eddie Jones' first taste of life in charge of the Red Rose brigade at Twickenham, and his team will be confident of victory over an Irish side struggling for form and fitness.

    The champions are beset by injuries to key men and field two new caps against the tournament pace-setters.

    There are plenty of unknowns on either side. Will Joe Schmidt's patched-up troops be able to produce a performance worthy of the title-holders? Just how good are this England team, having not been truly tested yet in wins over Italy and Scotland?

    It's the pivotal midway point of the championship, and we will see lots of questions answered on Saturday.

    Let's assess the five key battlegrounds for this clash.

1. The Ruck

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    Ireland go into the game without openside flanker Sean O'Brien, who has been replaced by debutant Josh van der Flier.

    The Leinster player has been in excellent form this season, and he teams up with Ireland's standout performer in the championship so far, CJ Stander.

    The experienced head in the trio is Jamie Heaslip, who told the Irish Independent's Ruaidhri O'Connor:

    They've (England) got guys who are very good at trying to poach the ball or trying to muddy up that ruck.

    So your rucking has got to be very, very accurate and by that you've got to beat them into the space. You want to play with quick ball, but they're that kind of team and they'll slow that ball down if you're not proactive and taking that space.

    It is very much a case of Ireland's new guard against an England trio comprised of a former captain shifted sideways in Chris Robshaw and a makeshift openside in James Haskell, with the in-form Billy Vunipola in between them.

    If this area pans out as Heaslip sees it, a lack of a true "jackal" could hamper England's chances of coming out on top.

2. Centre

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    Ulster's Stuart McCloskey, another Irish debutant, is picked at inside centre, with Robbie Henshaw shuffling out to the No. 13 jersey.

    It puts two big lumps outside Jonny Sexton, which will provide a contrast to the more flighty style of Jonathan Joseph and the more tactical brain of Owen Farrell.

    If Farrell, more comfortable at No. 10, can create space for Joseph, it will be a stern test for the new Irish combination to try and keep the Bath man in his box.

    Conversely, the bulk possessed by the new-look Irish midfield gives the England men plenty to deal with in defence.

3. Front Row

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    Ireland are back to full strength at the coalface with Mike Ross reinstated at tighthead and Cian Healy primed for a role as impact loosehead once Jack McGrath's race is run.

    It's a timely boost for a scrum that looked shaky against Wales, although McGrath was in fine fettle in Paris.

    He will need to match that performance against England's Dan Cole, while the recall for Joe Marler on England's loosehead could be significant.

    Marler put Ross through the ringer when Harlequins played Leinster last season in Europe, per the Independent's Chris Hewett, but the man from the Stoop had a World Cup to forget and was also poor against Scotland in this tournament's opener.

    The latest instalment of Ross vs. Marler could provide one side or the other with a steady flow of penalties.

4. Jones vs. Schmidt

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    The phoney war is well under way between the two head coaches.

    England's Jones questioned the wisdom of Ireland's revelation of Sexton's whiplash injury, per the Daily Mail's Chris Foy, and queried whether he should be taking part given the nature of the injury.

    The Guardian's Rob Kitson suggested antagonising the opposition with such comments was perhaps not the best way to approach his first game against Ireland:

    Most coaches like to avoid winding up the opposition for fear of making life harder for their own players on the pitch. Eddie Jones tends not to bother with such niceties but, even by his own direct standards, he prompted a sharp intake of breath on both sides of the Irish Sea by querying whether the visiting fly-half, Jonathan Sexton, should be involved.

    Sexton's team-mate Andrew Trimble has already shrugged Jones' comments off, per the Irish Independent, and Schmidt is surely too wily to take the bait from the Australian.

    Of more importance will be how the two sides set about breaking each other down. Ireland will recall how they hounded George Ford to distraction in last season's clash in Dublin, but they are not in the sort of form they showed last year, and England's new coach will want his side to exploit what has, so far, been a limited game plan deployed by Schmidt this term.

    Each man is looking for the route to victory, and whoever can decode his opposite's plan first will get the advantage.

5. Air Supremacy

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    Two of the best aerial exponents clash on Saturday with Rob Kearney and Mike Brown filling their sides' respective No. 15 jerseys.

    Each man is reliable under the high ball, both in the backfield and when leaping in heavy traffic.

    Ireland have been known to kick a lot in their recent championships and used the tactic to great effect in Dublin last season when they pinned England deep in their own territory thanks to Sexton's cultured boot. 

    Kearney can also launch some decent bombs of his own that will test Brown and his wings out.

    Brown himself has a cannon for a left peg, and he complements the kicking armoury England have in the 10/12 pairing of Farrell and Ford. 

    It's a guarantee that there will be a lot of kicking at Twickenham. The success of either sides' aerial assault will hinge on two factors: accuracy and quality of chase.