Which Ireland stars will make the difference against England?

For Ireland, there is no sweeter feeling than beating England – and their highly-anticipated clash in Dublin will surely live up to its billing as the pair meet on St Patrick’s Day weekend.

Ireland may not be able to win the title themselves but there is the added motivation of denying their bitter rivals a second consecutive Grand Slam.

Joe Schmidt’s side have endured a mixed campaign, with disappointing defeats to Celtic rivals Scotland and Wales sandwiching a battling victory against France and an outstanding performance against Italy.

So, Ireland’s Six Nations will ultimately be judged on how they fare against Eddie Jones’ all-conquering side, who are looking to break New Zealand’s record for the most consecutive test wins by a Tier One nation.

Although the men in green can’t surpass the Red Rose in the table, there are plenty of reasons to remain positive.

Here we look at three players who can make the crucial difference as Ireland go in search of a second straight home victory against the men in white.

Johnny Sexton

There is no doubt that Sexton has been one of the finest fly-halves in the world over the past five years, but a series of injuries has stopped him from reaching his best since the 2015 World Cup.

There were even calls for deputy No.10 Paddy Jackson to take the shirt full-time after he starred in November’s historic win against New Zealand, but Sexton was thrown straight back in against France and he looks back to his imperious best.

Jonathan Sexton & Joe Schmidt 800

His kicking, always a major feature, has been as accurate as ever, while with ball in hand he has looks sharp, creative and full of running.

Ireland pride themselves on their defence and Sexton was outstanding against Wales, intercepting two Dan Biggar passes by pressing high.

With England fly-half George Ford renowned for going close to the defensive line before delivering flat passes, Sexton will fancy his chances of repeating that feat again.

In the past, he has often been a thorn in England’s side and the Aviva Stadium is his kingdom – expect the 31-year-old to be pulling the strings and making England dance to his tune again.

Iain Henderson

Giant lock Devin Toner did not enjoy his best game against Wales last week as the Irish line-out crumbled, so Iain Henderson has a major job on his hands as he looks to repair the damage.

Both he and hooker Rory Best need to be back in sync if the result will be different at the Aviva Stadium.

One of England’s great strengths so far this year is their work at the line-out, with Joe Launchbury, Courtney Lawes and Maro Itoje all securing and stealing routinely.

Iain Henderson 800

With the set-piece likely to be pivotal throughout Saturday’s contest, Ireland cannot concede simple ball too often.

Their driving maul is a great source of points, with Ireland boasting a ferocious pack – making Henderson’s job of securing the ball vital to the outcome.

If England are able to disrupt his game, then Ireland will lose a major weapon.

Robbie Henshaw

Few Ireland fans can forget the sight of Robbie Henshaw leaping high over Alex Goode to catch a Connor Murray box-kick and touch down for the game-winning try against England two years ago.

And the powerful centre has a major role to play once again, in both attack and defence, if Ireland are to stop the English juggernaut.

With ball in hand, Henshaw is one of the most powerful centres in the Six Nations as he powers through gaps and sucks defenders in with almost every carry while showing creativity and vision with his range of passing.

Robbie Henshaw 800

Opposition sides often target England’s Ford by charging at him in the hope of exposing his defensive game, and the playmaker can expect to see a lot of Henshaw charging down his channel on Saturday.

Ireland operate supremely when they get quick ball and Henshaw’s ability to get across the gainline will be vital.

Defensively, he will play a major role in stopping No.8 Billy Vunipola, restored to the team after fully recovering from a knee injury.

Vuniola is one of the best ball carriers around, and if Ireland can shut him down then they will go a long way to blunting England’s attack.


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