Young England set for 'brawl' with O'Driscoll and old Ireland
Veteran centre will earn record 139th cap, England have 20-year-old fly-half Ford on the bench
ENGLAND second row Courtney Lawes is in no doubt of what awaits him tomorrow when Ireland run out at Twickenham to take on Ireland in the Six Nations showdown. "It's going to be a brawl," declared the 24-year-old. "They will come in flying. We have to be 100 per cent prepared for a battle. But we have come a long way as a team. We are ready."
England's hopes of their first Six Nations Grand Slam since 2003 vanished in Paris at the start of the month but Ireland are still on course to achieve only the third clean sweep in their history. Currently top of the Championship (ahead of the French on points), the Irish have so far swept aside both Scotland and Wales, scoring 54 points in the process and shipping just nine. Ireland remain the only side in the championship yet to concede a try in the opening two matches.
England, however, present a far more formidable challenge on a Twickenham ground where, two years ago, Ireland were thrashed 30-9. The Irish haven't beaten the men in white since 2010 but they'll fancy their chances tomorrow against a talented but inexperienced England.
Veteran Ireland centre Brian O'Driscoll will be winning his 139th cap at Twickenham, that's more than the entire England backline can muster and also brings him level with former Australian scrum-half George Gregan as the most capped player in the sport's history. In addition, six other Irishmen have more half a century of caps, including lock and captain Paul O'Connell, full-back Rob Kearney and No8 Jamie Heaslip. England's most capped player, in contrast, is scrum-half Danny Care with 44, and half of those were as a substitute.
If that wasn't cause enough for concern, England lost their most experienced forward at the weekend with Dan Cole withdrawing from the rest of the tournament. The Leicester tighthead is suffering from a bulging disc in his neck which is trapping a nerve, and England coach Stuart Lancaster described his absence as "massively disappointing".
England are well covered in all positions except tighthead and the loss of Cole means a call-up for Bath's David Wilson, a decent prop but not in the same class as the man he's replacing. More significantly, the 28-year-old only returned to action last weekend after eight weeks sidelined with a calf injury. "He hasn't played so much this season," admitted Lancaster. "But we're 100 per cent confident about bringing him back into the team."
All the same, England still have a meaty pack with a back-row spearheaded by the ferocious Billy Vunipola, who gets better with each game, and arguably the most complete second-row pairing in the tournament in Lawes and Joe Launchbury. Consequently, it's not just England bracing themselves for a "brawl". Ireland flanker Peter O'Mahony is predicting a "seriously filthy" match, adding: "It is always a huge game against England. It is always savagely physical, but a game you love playing while wearing the Irish jersey."
In some respects Ireland go into tomorrow's match with the weight of expectation upon their shoulders. With more than 700 caps between them, their players - with an average age of 29 - are veterans of World Cups and Lions tours; England are the rookies, with an average age four years younger than their opponents, and still very much a work in progress, personified by the inclusion on the bench of 20-year-old George Ford.
The Bath fly-half, named World Young Player of the Year in 2011, should make his debut at some point with Lancaster saying of him: "We feel that the time is right to include George Ford in the squad. We have successfully integrated many young players over the last two years. George is the next exciting talent to make his mark in the senior squad."
The ultimate objective for Lancaster is to have Ford and the rest of his players at the peak of their powers in 19 months when the 2015 World Cup kicks-off in England.
"We have a lot of players in their early twenties. By comparison Ireland are in transition," Lancaster said recently. "Many of them might not make the World Cup... we are at the opposite end of the scale, and that's the challenge. But we have not been daunted because this team has self-belief."
Saturday, 22 February, Kick-off: 4pm, live on BBC One.