In a tournament packed with fierce and historic rivalries, England vs Ireland is a doozy. The history of the two countries is enough to ensure that, with the 2007 contest at Croke Park perhaps the most iconic representation. In recent years, however, the contests themselves have been noteworthy for pure sporting drama.
In 2017, England were seemingly on top of the world. They had bounced back from their humiliating exit from their own Rugby World Cup in 2015 with a new coach, an immediate Grand Slam, a whitewash over Australia in the summer, and a successful autumn. They seemed to be well on the way to a second consecutive Grand Slam, a feat no team had achieved in the Six Nations. They were also on a record-equalling run of 18 Test wins, seeking a 19th and a new record. They went to Dublin in Round 5 on a roll, looking for their place in history.
The Irish were having none of it. Despite a questionable run of form, despite losing their first-choice scrum-half to injury before the week began and then their first-choice No 8 in the warmup, they came racing out of the blocks and hit England with an intensity the latter never managed to match. They dominated the breakdown, the lineout, the aerial battle, and both the territory and possession stats. The result was 13-9 but it felt far more one-sided than that.
In 2018, the two met again in the final round of the tournament. This time it was Ireland with the narrative in their favour: chasing a Grand Slam in a foreign capital on St Patrick’s Day, with England on a poor run of form. This time, however, the narrative held. Ireland were brutally effective in the first half, going into the changing rooms leading 5-21, despite losing Peter O'Mahony to the sin bin. The second half was more equal but there was no doubt who the better side were. Ireland seized only the third Grand Slam in their history.
Those two matches contained sufficient drama on their own but 2019 was to match them. Again, the fixture list provided heightened drama with the game scheduled for the opening round. Ireland were arguably the best team in the world, coming off a historic year that saw them win a Grand Slam, win a first series away in Australia for almost 40 years, and complete a clean sweep of the autumn games, including a convincing win over New Zealand. England’s fortunes had improved since the spiralling out of 2018 but Ireland were the comfortable favourites to win.
And yet, just like in 2017, the apple-cart was not so much overturned as it was smashed out of the road. England set down a marker that, one defeat in Cardiff aside, took them all the way to the Rugby World Cup final. It was a performance to remember. Hugely physical in attack and defence, hustling the opposition into mistakes all over the pitch.
They appeared to have the ball on a string, making a mockery of Joe Schmidt’s decision to select Robbie Henshaw at 15. They were clinical, ruthless, and superb. After half time, Ireland looked like they might be about to make a game of it, looked like they might return to their 2018 form. But England were not interested in being reduced to a loss for a third consecutive game and refused to relent. By the end, the Irish players looked bewildered and they kept that expression for much of 2019.
What then, does 2020’s fixture have in store? Will there be a fourth consecutive epic to add to the list?
In truth, neither side quite has the wind behind them as in these previous fixtures. Ireland have won their opening two rounds and therefore have a shot at the Grand Slam but they were unconvincing against Scotland and, although they deserved their win over Wales in Round 2, few teams will make as many errors as Wayne Pivac’s new look Welsh side managed. England, meanwhile, were caught cold by France in their opening round fixture before returning to winning ways in truly horrendous conditions away in Scotland.
Home advantage has not been much of a factor of late either. That uncertainty means this match doesn’t have the narrative of previous encounters but it could make it even more exciting. One thing is for sure, both sets of players won’t have forgotten the highs and lows of the past three years.