Eddie Jones insisted England’s belief in their ability to beat champions Ireland was intact even though “no one thinks we can win” the Six Nations clash in Dublin.
Ireland, who defeated England 24-15 at Twickenham to complete a Grand Slam last season, will be favourites for Saturday’s match at the Aviva Stadium.
But few serious observers have completely written off the chances of a victory for England, particularly given their improving form during a November where they won three out of four Tests and only lost narrowly to New Zealand, albeit Ireland beat the world champion All Blacks in Dublin that month.
Nevertheless England coach Jones, perhaps trying to inspire a ‘siege mentality’ among his players at their training camp in Portugal, said Thursday after naming his matchday 23: “It is well documented no one thinks we can win but I can tell you everyone inside our camp believes we can win.
“We are hugely looking forward to the weekend,” the Australian added in a statement issued by the Rugby Football Union.
The injury-plagued Manu Tuilagi is set to make his first England start in more than four years after fellow centre Ben Te’o was ruled out with a side strain.
Elliot Daly held off the challenge of Mike Brown to remain at fullback.
Daly, more comfortable as a centre or wing, has started England’s last seven Tests at fullback.
Jones could have opted to bring back specialist No 15 Mike Brown for an expected aerial bombardment by Ireland given the Harlequins stalwart’s skill under the high ball — an area where Daly struggled during the November internationals.
But Jack Nowell was recalled. Having spoken about the possibility of converting the Exeter flyer into a flanker, Jones selected him in his usual wing position.
– ‘Impressive Tuilagi’ –
There is no doubt, though, that England will want the defensively strong Nowell to combat Ireland’s ruck threat.
“I think it is quite clear to beat Ireland you have to beat them in the contest area,” said Jones. “They are very good at the breakdown and in the air. “Both those areas are a priority for us,” the former Australia and Japan coach added.
Jones’s first defeat in his opening 23 games as Red Rose coach was a 13-9 loss away to Ireland in 2017 that both ended England’s bid for a second successive Grand Slam and a new outright world record of 19 consecutive Test wins by a major rugby union nation.
“Traditionally England and Ireland games are always very close, they are tough affairs, there is a lot of emotion in the games so our ability to finish the game strongly is going to be vital,” said Jones ahead of the teams’ first Test of a 2019 culminating with the World Cup in Japan.
Fly-half Owen Farrell again captains England, with the experienced Ben Youngs back at scrum-half.
“I just felt for this game the best option was to play Owen Farrell at 10 and Manu as a like-for-like replacement for Ben Te’o,” Jones explained. “Manu has impressed us at the training camp, and is right to play.”
England’s pack features both Vunipola brothers, with No 8 Billy and prop Mako having recovered from their respective arm and calf injuries.
“It is nice to have Mako and Billy back,” said Jones.
“Mako is obviously a world-class loose head. We missed him during the autumn but he has come back in good nick and really committed to be the best he can be. With Billy we haven’t had him for a long time. He’s also in great nick and ready to play well for us.”
But there was not even a reserve spot for lock Joe Launchbury, now recovered from the knee injury that sidelined him in November.
Jones instead selected the Saracens duo of George Kruis and Maro Itoje as his second row pairing, with Courtney Lawes providing bench cover.