Curry and Wilson give England flankers to battle Ireland
DUBLIN (AP) — Coach Joe Schmidt insists there isn't much of a difference between his Ireland side and England.
Yet there is a difference.
The main one is possession. The Irish hog the ball and the English wish they could.
Thanks to overwhelming ball control, Ireland has won their last two rugby matchups, spoiling England's Six Nations Grand Slam bid in 2017 at Lansdowne Road, and clinching their own Grand Slam in 2018 at Twickenham.
A Grand Slam isn't on the line on Saturday in Dublin, but a grand event is guaranteed by teams who have shared the last five championships.
And when it comes to competing for the ball at the breakdown, England might finally be able to match Ireland thanks to loose forwards Tom Curry and Mark Wilson.
Given a second shot by England in June, Curry and Wilson grabbed it and came to prominence in November with their exceptional workrate. Now they pose the threat England has longed for at the breakdown that has been bossed by Ireland's fantastic back-rowers Peter O'Mahony, Sean O'Brien, CJ Stander, Josh van der Flier, and Dan Leavy. O'Mahony, Van der Flier and Stander start on Saturday with aggressive two-time Lions tourist O'Brien in reserve.
Curry and Wilson were tried and ditched by coach Eddie Jones in June 2017, when Curry became at 18 the youngest player to start for England in 90 years. They were brought back a year later for the tour of South Africa. England lost the series but Curry and Wilson impressed with their willingness to put their bodies on the line.
Curry, the specialist openside prized for so long by England, started the first match of November against South Africa but severely injured his ankle and missed the rest of the series. Wilson, a No. 8, started the same match only after Billy Vunipola and Sam Simmonds were injured and Nathan Hughes was suspended. He was man of the match against the Springboks, kept plugging, and was voted man of the series.
Up against Ireland for the first time, Curry and Wilson start with the fit-again Billy Vunipola, giving England a trio which has a voracious desire for contact.
"When we've come unstuck, it's been around that area of the breakdown," England scrumhalf Ben Youngs says. "They've just been able to deal with it better, make it slow and frustrating for you. So there's no surprise we've spent a lot of time focusing on the breakdown."
While the game is expected to be ferocious where the sun doesn't shine, it will also be an airborne test of nerves. Following the global pattern, a lot of kicking is expected by experts in the art; Conor Murray and Jonathan Sexton for Ireland, and Youngs and Owen Farrell for England.
The fullbacks will bear the brunt of the kick-chase, and both sides are putting their trust in players who are fighting for form.
With the ever-reliable Rob Kearney not quite over a thigh injury, Ireland plumped for Robbie Henshaw, who hasn't worn the 15 in a test since his debut in 2013. He also hasn't had a lot of game-time of late, which Schmidt was more worried about than his ability to play fullback, where the center started his career.
Mike Brown, solid under the high ball, was in contention to start for England after being deposed in the last seven tests by Elliot Daly. But Daly was chosen, despite poor club form.
"Elliot gives us a great attacking game," Jones says. "Dropping a couple of balls is not an indication to me that he hasn't done well because there are so many other factors involved.
"Elliot is a great catcher of the ball. He's been doing a lot of work with (England high performance manager) Neil Craig, who's from an Aussie Rules background. We're much better at tracking back now to protect our catchers."
Jones added the English are "serious with a smile on their face."
"You want to play the best in the world away from home and Ireland are the best in the world at the moment," he says. "Everyone is writing them up and they have got to carry that expectation, so we're excited about the prospect of playing there. Praise can make you weak."
Ireland: Robbie Henshaw, Keith Earls, Garry Ringrose, Bundee Aki, Jacob Stockdale, Jonathan Sexton, Conor Murray; CJ Stander, Josh van der Flier, Peter O'Mahony, James Ryan, Devin Toner, Tadhg Furlong, Rory Best (captain), Cian Healy. Reserves: Sean Cronin, David Kilcoyne, Andrew Porter, Quinn Roux, Sean O'Brien, John Cooney, Joey Carbery, Jordan Larmour.
England: Elliot Daly, Jonny May, Henry Slade, Manu Tuiagi, Jack Nowell, Owen Farrell (captain), Ben Youngs; Billy Vunipola, Tom Curry, Mark Wilson, George Kruis, Maro Itoje, Kyle Sinckler, Jamie George, Mako Vunipola. Reserves: Luke Cowan-Dickie, Ellis Genge, Harry Williams, Courtney Lawes, Nathan Hughes, Dan Robson, George Ford, Chris Ashton.