Eddie Jones has made just two changes to the side which saw off Italy in Rome 13 days ago. The hamstring injury which forced Joe Launchbury out of the second-row means Saracens’ exciting and versatile back five forward Maro Itoje gets a first start having made such a strong impression off the bench against the Italians on his debut. Itoje was initially intended to continue as a replacement, having seen off lock Courtney Lawes as Jones shifted the balance of his bench from six forwards to five and three backs for this game but when Launchbury’s hammer failed to pass fit, the Saracen was in and Lawes was recalled from Northampton to the bench. The other change comes at loosehead prop where Joe Marler comes in for Mako Vunipola, who reverts to the bench. Wasps centre Elliot Daly is included as a replacement for the first time and could be a potent weapon off the bench late on having already nailed a penalty for his club from more than 58 metres this season. Hooker Dylan Hartley continues as captain and will win his 69th cap today.
Jonathan Joseph can provide the midfield spark England have so sorely missed in recent years and the Bath No.13 is already proving his worth as anyone who saw his second-half hat-trick of tries against Italy at the Stadio Olimpico a fortnight ago can attest. Also look for the threat posed by newcomer Maro Itoje, a superb athlete with great technique over the ball at the breakdown and a strong carrier in attack.
Despite the much-vaunted arrival of line-out specialist Steve Borthwick as Eddie Jones’s forwards coach, England’s weak spot against Italy proved to be the line-out with four lost on their own throw. Likewise ill discipline cost them 13 penalties against their Italian hosts in Rome.
Five changes for Ireland from the starting XV which took the field in Paris two weeks ago, eventually losing 10-9 to France. The ongoing injury crisis has seen Joe Schmidt lose Sean O’Brien (hamstring), Mike McCarthy (concussion) and Dave Kearney (AC joint) following that physical encounter with the French, as well as tighthead prop Tadhg Furlong. Jared Payne (hamstring) was the latest withdrawal on Thursday, but the good news for Ireland is they have been able to recall a quartet of frontline players who had missed the Stade de France game. Keith Earls replaces Dave Kearney on the wing, Mike Ross resumes at tighthead prop for his first game of the championship, relegating Nathan White to the bench, while loosehead Cian Healy and Simon Zebo join the replacements.
In the second-row, Donnacha Ryan comes in for McCarthy to partner Devin Toner in the second- row and there are also two Test debuts for Ireland at Twickenham. Josh van der Flier leapfrogs Tommy O’Donnell to replace O’Brien at openside in a back row that includes CJ Stander and Jamie Heaslip. In the backline Stuart McCloskey starts his international career at inside centre, with Robbie Henshaw shifting to outside centre in Payne’s absence. Rhys Ruddock comes on to the bench as back-row cover at O’Donnell’s further expense, while Connacht second row Ultan Dillane could become the third Irish debutant if deployed as a replacement.
The selection of Robbie Henshaw at outside centre finally gives Ireland supporters the chance to see if his anointment as heir apparent to Brian O’Driscoll was valid. One game will not prove that either way, of course, but having been used as a No.12 he will be posed different questions one position further out, both defensively and creatively. It is an intriguing prospect.
There’s no denying the thought of taking the field at Twickenham with two starting debutants in Josh van der Flier and Stuart McCloskey and possibly a third with Ultan Dillane on the bench is anathema to many for Irish hopes of a first victory in the 2016 Six Nations. Yet their presence, McCloskey at inside centre and van der Flier at openside flanker, could provide the spark to finally ignite this Irish side.