England are 'learning fast' but Ireland's cohesion is what Steve Borthwick will want to replicate

Manu Tuilagi will start for England against Ireland in the Six Nations this weekend

It seems written in the stars, doesn’t it?

Ireland are as good as they have ever been, one game away from their fourth Grand Slam, and with their final fixture coming at home over St Patrick’s Day weekend.

The visitors? An England side wallowing in the embarrassment and indignity of a record-breaking defeat at Twickenham against the scintillating French a week earlier.

It seems like the perfect opportunity for Ireland to destroy their oldest rival and give Johnny Sexton the Six Nations send-off that his career deserves.

Andy Farrell will be aware of the challenge that his team will face, though. England will be smarting after the pummeling they were subjected to last Saturday, and simply cannot be as bad again. They will be coming to prove themselves individually and collectively, and a wounded animal is often the most dangerous. After all, what have England got to lose this weekend?

Steve Borthwick said of that defeat: “We know that after the bitter disappointment of the display against an exceptional France team last week, we will have to be much improved to meet the challenge of playing the side presently ranked number one in the world."

After a defeat which was as chastening as that, the team was always going to have changed, even before the midweek injury to Ollie Chessum – who has quietly been one of England’s only shining lights in the tournament. In come David Ribbans, Owen Farrell, Manu Tuilagi, and Henry Arundell. Those making way are Chessum, Ollie Lawrence (injured against France), Max Malins and Marcus Smith.

“I have witnessed an England squad determined to make amends for the defeat at Twickenham, and I am confident that the team announced today will once again want to show the sort of resilience and attitude that brought us victory in Wales," Borthwick said.

"What I need to do is make sure players build relationships with each other, and understand what Test rugby is about. I think this team is the right team for this game this weekend. What you’re seeing is players that are experiencing a Six Nations tournament for the first time. I think they’re learning fast. We fell short last week. We need to learn faster.”

Arundell is an exciting addition to the team, making only his seventh start in senior rugby, but he has adjusted brilliantly to every other level that he’s played at.

“I pick players because of the ability and strengths they have,” Borthwick said of Arundell. “He has got some incredible strengths in his game. 

"Yes, he’s a young man, but I think we’ve all seen what capabilities he has. Ultimately we want him to get the ball in his hands, show and express what talent he has.

"He is a young man but my experience of him is that he’s really calm and composed.”

Whilst England fans can be excited about the prospect of the 20-year-old with ball in hand, that must be tempered with the realism of how rare that may be given Ireland’s all-court, all-suffocating game. For Arundell to get opportunities to show his immense talent, the England pack will have to improve exponentially.

Smith’s omission is the other major headline in the backline. In truth, it must have been hard for any onlooker to not feel sorry for the Harlequins star against France.

He is a supremely talented individual, as evidenced by his performance at ‘HQ’ for Quins against Exeter Chiefs the week before, but his style just doesn’t seem to fit with the England team right now.

With the pack failing to get and, more importantly, keep fast ruck ball, he had no chance to show his skills. There had been calls from many quarters for George Ford to be brought into the line-up, but Borthwick resisted the urge to use him.

It clearly shows that despite the inconsistent performances of both Farrell and Smith in this Guinness Six Nations, they remain his first choices, and Ford must play some (good) rugby for Sale Sharks between now and the end of the season if he is to force his way into the conversation ahead of the World Cup in the Autumn.

The selection of Tuilagi is intriguing, whilst it also points to the lack of a clear first-choice England midfield. Of course, it was a Farrell-Tuilagi-Slade midfield that brought England one of their best performances of the last 10 years in Dublin in 2019, but Tuilagi was fit and available for the first two rounds of this championship yet was sent back to his club side Sale.

In the meantime, Lawrence has come into the team and has shown glimpses of a partnership forming between him and Henry Slade.

What best highlights the difference between the two nations is the fact that Ireland have one spot in their best 23 up for grabs, the 23 shirt itself. The rest of the side slots into place, fitness permitting.

Their constant bedrock, which England would kill for, is the consistent excellency of Leinster in the United Rugby Championship. Having 12 players in the Ireland team this weekend shows that.

The ability to churn out top-quality talent from Leinster and the Dublin area is mind-boggling and means that neither province nor country will be far from the best for a long time to come.

The forced changes this week come in the centre, with Garry Ringrose missing after a sickening injury at Murrayfield last Sunday, along with a rotation at scrum half as Jamison Gibson-Park returns. The third change is a forced switch at lock, as the excellent Ryan Baird returns for the injured Iain Henderson.

The best pre-game news that Ireland could have hoped for, though, came with the fitness of Caelan Doris. The clear player of the championship so far has been supreme throughout the campaign, in defence and attack, offering almost superhuman levels of work rate alongside his world-class skills. Jack Conan, who isn’t a bad replacement and starts for Leinster, must settle for a place among the replacements.

Ireland’s greatest strength, and the reason they are rightly overwhelming favourites for the game this weekend, is their phase play which is so intriguingly intricate, yet so simple. They get over the gain line on first phase, before manipulating defenders with a multitude of runners. Any lesser group of players would be confused and errors would occur, but with arguably the best player in the world in each position, it is almost a work of art.

The biggest challenge for the visitors will be to remain tight early on and to hold territory within the Irish half. If they can’t do that, the match may end in a cricket score. If they can hold Ireland at bay in the opening stages, they will give themselves the chance to grow into the game.

These are the occasions when the great leaders step up. It is a chance for Owen Farrell to demonstrate his credentials once again after a mediocre championship by his supreme standards. Even that may not be enough though, as opposite number Sexton could well continue his march towards the World Player of the Year award by masterminding a Grand Slam victory.