London: Six Nations title-holders Ireland host England in their opening match at Lansdowne Road on Saturday.
Here are the three key areas where he match will be won and lost:
Battle of the ringmasters
Ireland’s World Player of the Year Johnny Sexton and English captain Owen Farrell have had fitness problems but victory for either side probably hinges on which one of the playmaking fly-halves dominates the flow of the game.
Both know each other well, not just as opponents, but also playing alongside each other in the epic British & Irish Lions’ drawn series with world champions New Zealand in 2017.
Sexton missed Leinster’s two Champions Cup matches in January with a knee problem but forwards coach Simon Easterby says he is a rare beast who can go into the cauldron of a Test match without game time. Farrell, meanwhile, has had a thumb injury. Both too have been targeted with England coach Eddie Jones suggesting Sexton had the referee on “batphone” and Farrell being labelled a “hothead” by former Irish scrum-half Peter Stringer. Sexton also hopes to deliver family bragging rights to Farrell’s father Andy, Ireland’s defence coach.
Henshaw and Daly high ball to high ball
Ireland’s Robbie Henshaw and his England counterpart at full-back Elliot Daly enter the match with question marks over them. For 25-year-old Henshaw, he will he playing in a position in which he has not featured regularly since his days at Connacht, having become a formidable centre for Leinster and his country. Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt has few doubts he will shine saying if he asked him to play No 8 he would look bemused but go and do it. “You know he (Henshaw) is a solutions man he is not a problems man,” said Schmidt. For Daly, who is more accustomed to playing wing or centre, there are question marks over his perceived weakness under the high ball with the likes of Sexton expected to test him mercilessly. “Maybe there’s a bit of inexperience from Robbie and Elliot that may cause a bit of angst but from what I’ve seen of Elliot playing 15 I think he’s got great skills to play there,” said Schmidt.
Billy the fragile Kid
The return to the fray of the likes of Manu Tuilagi and the Vunipola brothers, Mako and Billy could well deliver the “brutality” that Eddie Jones promised Schmidt. However, equally their fragility could rebound on the England head coach should they suffer further injuries. Billy Vunipola is perhaps the most feared of the trio, should the No 8 be back to his thundering best. The 26-year-old has only started three Tests in the past two years due to a succession of injuries — including breaking his arm three times last year — but he is intent on making an impression. “I want to stay fit but I don’t want to be mediocre,” he said.