JON SLEIGHTHOLME COLUMN: England can beat the Irish, but it will be tight

IRELAND'S KEY MAN - Brian O'Driscoll
IRELAND'S KEY MAN - Brian O'Driscoll

As usual the Six Nations did not fail to deliver on its opening weekend with plenty of drama, shocks and intrigue that only it can deliver.

You can argue that perhaps there is a higher quality to the southern hemisphere Rugby Championship, but is has a long way to go to match the Six Nations in terms of atmosphere and passion.

There was a big story in every game.

Wales continued their awful run (and I don’t see that ending in France on Saturday by the way) as Ireland showed that, despite being written off in certain camps as contenders, they are still a big threat.

France, well what can you say about France?

So sublime one moment and awful the next, but that should take nothing away from Italy who, in my opinion, had their finest moment in their brief but eventful Six Nations history.

That leads us on to the Calcutta Cup and an England performance that ought to have left England supporters very contented.

The England camp themselves will be very satisfied with that start, but there are plenty of areas for them to improve.

I felt Scotland could potentially provide England with a real banana skin, but they avoided that with a dominant display and, to be frank, Scotland, bar their opening score, never really threatened England.

From a statistics point of view it was equally impressive.

England bossed the territory, possession, line breaks, breakdown and in the aftermath they really ought to have put 50 points on the board.

It was only some inaccuracy and impatience in the final third of the pitch that prevented that happening.

I am really encouraged by the way this team has developed over the past 12 months and although not quite at the heights of their All Blacks display last Saturday, they continued their progress, superbly marshalled by Owen Farrell.

A year ago he was a kicking machine but also was a player who really didn’t look too creative going forward with ball on hand.

In his past two appearances he has displayed a new found confidence to play in the face of the defence with some really deft touches and a maturity that defies his years.

That said he needs a platform to play off, and the forwards gave him that, particularly the back row that were impressive as a unit.

Their control of proceedings up front certainly helped Farrell, and he will need that protection again in Dublin on Sunday.

Ireland, despite impressing with the overall result on Saturday, did show plenty of signs of wobbling in the second half against Wales.

That will have given England heart that, should they start well in Dublin, Ireland are beatable at home this coming weekend.

I would like to keep Brian O’Driscoll very busy all afternoon, and would habe liked to have seen Manu Tuilagi in the mix as he would have been a bigger problem for him to handle.

O’Driscoll is the heartbeat of the Irish team and without his influence they will not be the same team.

It is a worry for all Irish fans should he choose to hang up his boots at the end of the season which looks likely, and on Saturday, England need to nullify his impact by putting a physical threat in front of him that he has not faced this season.

England will be confident of a big performance from their pack on Sunday.

They should have every right it will come, as it is fairly evenly balanced in the back row with perhaps a slight edge for Ireland, but England certainly have the upper hand in the tight five which ought to give them a solid platform to play off.

It will be tight, but I expect England to come away from Dublin with a result.

Either way, one camp will be fielding the dreaded Grand Slam questions next week, unless there is an unlikely draw.

Make or break time for Saints

With all the elation from Twickenham it would have been easy to overlook that Saturday evening was another frustrating one for the Saints.

It was always going to be a tough ask to take a bonus point win at Exeter but in their selection I don’t think they really helped themselves.

I don’t understand the logic of leaving most of your better players on the bench in a game that they really needed to win.

I do appreciate that you cannot play the same faces week in and out over such a long period, but surely the opportunity to rotate the squad had been in the early rounds of the LV=Cup not in the key game that would have sent them through to the semi-finals?

This is a squad that badly needs a confidence shot in the arm and a date with a semi-final would have certainly lifted spirits in the camp.

The only crumb of comfort is that it now clears the decks for the squad to totally focus on the Premiership battle and securing a place in the play-offs.

With some key home games coming up over the next few weeks this is now make or break time for the season, starting with the visit of one of the main threats for that play off berth in the guise of Gloucester this weekend.