England boss Andy Robinson has backed rookie prop Matt Stevens to thrive when he is thrown into the Lansdowne Road bear-pit against Ireland on Sunday.
Despite England’s dismal RBS 6 Nations Championship form, Robinson not panicked and made just one enforced change following the 18-17 reversal at home to France nine days ago.
South Africa-born Stevens, who qualifies for the world champions through an English parent, will make his first Test start following two substitute appearances against New Zealand last summer.
The 22-year-old Bath forward normally packs down at loosehead for his club but he now takes over from Phil Vickery, who has a broken arm, and becomes England’s third different tighthead in three games, with Leicester’s Julian White currently sidelined with a neck injury.
Robinson has kept changes to a minimum in his starting line-up, yet there are three notable alterations on the bench.
Stevens’ Bath front-row colleague Duncan Bell, who had ambitions of playing for Wales last year, takes over from injured Andrew Sheridan in providing prop cover, while Leicester backs Andy Goode and Ollie Smith also feature.
Tigers fly-half Goode, the Zurich Premiership’s top points-scorer this season, is uncapped, but Robinson clearly believes he needs quality goalkicking back-up, given that Charlie Hodgson and Olly Barkley missed six penalties between them against France.
And few will argue with three times-capped centre Smith’s selection, given his blistering club form highlighted by a two-try display when Leicester routed Newcastle last weekend.
Henry Paul’s rollercoaster international career again takes a downward turn as he makes way for Goode, and Smith is preferred to Northampton wing and World Cup winner Ben Cohen.
Bell, whose Welsh ambitions were blocked by the International Rugby Board because he toured with England in 1998 even though he did not win a cap, had been tipped in many quarters to start.
The former Ebbw Vale and Pontypridd forward lives in Wales, and hoped to qualify for the national team on residency grounds. He even turned down an England A invitation last season, as he continued with his Welsh hopes.
Bell, whose hopes of wearing the red jersey were supported by the Welsh Rugby Union, appealed against the IRB’s decision, but that protest was quashed last December.
And Robinson has now plumped for a player eight years Bell’s junior in the highly-rated Stevens.
“I am thrilled for Matt, and I am confident he will grasp this opportunity and make his mark against Ireland,” said Robinson.
“He has impressed in training, and he has been building up to this for some time now.”
Stevens, who is studying politics and economics at university, first featured for England in the non-cap World Cup celebration game against New Zealand Barbarians 14 months ago.
On that occasion, he also gained his chance because of an injury sustained by the unfortunate Vickery.
Stevens arrived at Bath after representing the Junior Springboks at under-18 and under-19 levels, in addition to playing for Western Province and South African Universities.
As for the bench alterations, Robinson added: “All three players (Bell, Goode and Smith) have shown outstanding form of late, most recently in the England A victory over France A, and for their club. Selection beckons when players demonstrate such consistent ability.”
England will head to Dublin on Thursday, aware that a fourth successive Championship defeat – two this season, plus France in the final game last term - would equal their worst Five or Six Nations results sequence since 1987.
And Robinson, having selected his side, will hope everyone emerges unscathed from training this week, notably Bath centre Barkley, who has been troubled by a calf strain.
“This game against Ireland will be massive,” acknowledged Robinson. “We recognise it is a must-win game for us this season.”
Ireland, buoyant following victories over Italy and Scotland, are chasing their first Grand Slam since 1947 and will go into Sunday’s clash as red-hot favourites.
Robinson though, will hope England can reproduce some of their first-half form against France, when Barkley and wing Josh Lewsey scored quality tries to underpin a 17-6 interval advantage.
Ultimately, it all went hopelessly wrong as Barkley and Hodgson rifled kick after kick off target, but at least if there is any sign of a repeat this time around, Robinson has an outstanding alternative in 24-year-old Goode.
England team to play Ireland in the RBS 6 Nations Championship in Dublin on Sunday:
J Robinson (Sale Sharks, capt); M Cueto (Sale Sharks), J Noon (Newcastle), O Barkley (Bath), J Lewsey (Wasps); C Hodgson (Sale Sharks), H Ellis (Leicester); G Rowntree (Leicester), S Thompson (Northampton), M Stevens (Bath), D Grewcock (Bath), B Kay (Leicester), J Worsley (Wasps), L Moody (Leicester), M Corry (Leicester).
Replacements : A Titterrell (Sale Sharks), D Bell (Bath), S Borthwick (Bath), A Hazell (Gloucester), M Dawson (Wasps), A Goode (Leicester), O Smith (Leicester).