England vs Ireland live free: England’s switcheroo midfield has reverted to Marcus Smith, Henry Slade and Joe Marchant for Saturday’s season-defining Six Nations match against Ireland at Twickenham.
The visitors for their part bring a highly experienced combo of Johnny Sexton, Bundee Aki and Garry Ringrose, with Robbie Henshaw, the mighty British & Irish Lions centre, on the bench. Some might say if Henshaw was English, he’d be straight into the starting 15, as he provides the footballing basher that England lack, in the not unfamiliar absence of the injured Manu Tuilagi.
Slade is more a No.13 by inclination, as is Marchant, but on Friday the former was enthusiastic about England’s midfield three. “I share the same mindset as Marcus [Smith], how he likes to attack a game,” Slade said.
“It’s great for someone like myself to get on the ball more. Likewise, I have really enjoyed playing with Joe [Marchant], he is one of the quickest guys you will ever see, a hell of an athlete, great in the air, he’s got it all really. it’s a good relationship we [three] have built over the last few months.”
So how will England play this crucial confrontation, knowing they may be out of the Six Nations title race it they lose, depending on Friday night’s France result?
England put two lovely tries past the world champions South Africa last November, using the same midfield, and it generated our flash headline: “Champagne backline without Tuilagi or Farrell is a sign of things to come” – this after Tuilagi had torn his hamstring while scoring England’s first try.
But is Saturday’s match with its different backdrop a time to let rip or to be more conservative, more defensively-minded? “I have every intention to get our attack going,” Slade said, “but obviously it is right call, right time. I’m not going to be forcing things for the sake of forcing things.”
Elliot Daly, who plays deeper and less directly than Marchant, has made way for the Harlequins man. And, inevitably, we must dwell on Tuilagi, for whom head coach Eddie Jones has made no secret of his yearning.
The Sale Sharks centre offers a twin threat of contact and evasion. Defenders are obliged to drop their tackle height on him, and/or put in two tacklers at once, or face losing the collision. Tuilagi has also become cleverer at running decoy lines.
His gainline presence would have protected Smith to run behind him, and bring England carriers into the game. Tuilagi also has a great strike rate of 18 tries in 44 England Tests.
In searching for an alternative during Tuilagi’s injury-ridden career, Jones and his predecessor Stuart Lancaster tried rugby league – Sam Burgess, Luther Burrell, Ben Te’o – while Billy Twelvetrees and, currently, Mark Atkinson have bulk but are more playmakers than bruisers.
Lancaster mined South African roots for the defensively excellent Brad Barritt, while the continuing prevalence of southern-hemisphere centres among Premiership clubs is an obvious problem. Jones has dabbled with Daly, Ollie Lawrence (it was hoped he was a Tuilagi identikit), Ollie Devoto and Dan Kelly. And of course the now also injured fly-half/inside centre, Owen Farrell.
How to watch England vs Ireland
- Date: Saturday 12 March
- Venue: Twickenham
- Time: 4.45pm GMT
- TV channel: ITV
- Live stream: ITV Hub
England under Jones have played 38 Test matches at Twickenham, with an impressive 34 wins, one draw and three losses. However, one of the losses was to Ireland in 2018, in similar circumstances to Saturday’s, with an unsettled England pack.
In Slade’s first Six Nations start – away to Ireland in 2019 – he had Farrell and Tuilagi alongside, and England won a memorable victory. “We had big lads up front, putting in big shots and big carries,” Slade recalled. “We have [still] got a lot of strengths in that area… not just in the outside channels, but some of the big boys up front. Some real dangerous carriers.”
A year ago, in Dublin, neither Slade nor Tuilagi was available, and Jones reacted with fury to England’s 32-18 defeat. The big losers included the Vunipola brothers, and flanker Ben Earl and Lawrence, none of whom have been picked by England since. By the by, Aki was sent off for a high tackle in that match, but he is a favourite of Andy Farrell, the Ireland coach, mixing heft with good offloading.
Two weeks ago, the Irish without Sexton lapsed into predictable one-out running against 13- and then 12-man Italy. The return of their venerable fly-half and captain on Saturday brings focus and drive. For this England midfield to thrive, they need to match that and more, with discipline and iron defence, and not just in jerseys 10, 12 and 13.