England have suffered some horrible Six Nations fates in Dublin in recent years, but this time it is Ireland who are being advised to brace themselves. Mike Catt, the visiting skills coach, has known all the modern greats and says none of them, Jonny Wilkinson included, has had a steelier big-game temperament at a younger age than the current English fly-half Owen Farrell.
Farrell's duel with Ireland's outstanding stand-off Jonny Sexton will be among the most fascinating aspects of Sunday's game at the Aviva Stadium, and Catt believes the Irish will struggle in vain to ruffle the Englishman's composure. "Have I seen a young player as tough psychologically as him? No, I haven't. Owen is such a focused individual. Whether it's Dan Carter, Jonny Sexton or Ronan O'Gara opposite him he won't change. He's so good at blocking out all the hype and focusing on what's best for the team. His mental toughness is exceptional."
Growing up with Great Britain's former rugby league captain as his father and mentor has clearly helped. But the younger Farrell's rapidly increasing maturity at Test level was particularly evident in the 38-18 win over Scotland. "He's seen what his dad has done growing up and it's obviously put him in good stead," said Catt. "We didn't use to see 20-year-olds at international level so, yes, he's up there with anyone. He's enjoying himself and he's buzzing like the rest of them. We've been focusing on the detail of beating defences and they're now getting it."
Catt, who won 75 caps for England, believes his charges can play with the same zest in Dublin if they can outpace the Irish back row and the ever-competitive Brian O'Driscoll. "To break down any defence is about your speed and movement of ball. Whether it's an offloading game or multi‑phase doesn't really matter. It's about the speed at which you do things, which keeps the defence on the back foot and prevents them attacking you.
"What we've done with the whole team is to get them to understand when it's front-foot ball, when it's neutral ball and when it's negative ball, which affects decision-making. The speed of the ball against Scotland meant Owen could come on to the ball a lot flatter and bring everyone else on to the gain-line as well. We've been working on it a lot in training and the nice thing is they're transferring it into the game now. It's all about the tempo at which we're playing."
Catt also suggested the arrival of Billy Twelvetrees had helped Farrell, which may suggest that the Gloucester centre will feature against the Irish. "You've got three playmakers in there now which helps. If Faz attacks the line he knows Billy or Alex Goode is there behind him to take control. It gives everyone a bit of freedom to go out and express themselves.
"Billy's played at Leicester so he's mentally very tough and he puts his body on the line. He's got the ability to move the ball and run with it but his breakdown work is good. He's a big, strong man and he's brave as well." As for the looming duel between Farrell and Sexton, Catt suspects it will be closely monitored by the Lions management. "A lot of people are going to look at it as a head-to-head. Both played exceptionally well at the weekend. It's another game for them both to stick their hands up and say 'Take me on a Lions tour.' It's an exciting prospect. Ireland are one of the best attacking teams in world rugby, as they showed in that second half against Wales."
Both England and Ireland will finalise their teams on Friday, with Manu Tuilagi having been challenged to prove in training he is completely match-sharp following his recent ankle injury. "Manu has been out of the game for three or four weeks," stressed Catt. "We will see how they all train and we will go accordingly from there. If guys have performed exceptionally well on the weekend, the guys coming in need to make sure they have the [necessary] tempo and up the intensity."
The uncapped Wasps No8 Billy Vunipola has been included in England's travelling 25-man squad for Dublin amid continuing doubts over Ben Morgan's fitness.
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