Can George Ford’s return to fitness mask England’s Manu Tuilagi-shaped hole in their attack against Ireland?

Ben Youngs, George Ford playing football on a field

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Ireland will take on England for the first time in nearly a decade without Johnny Sexton or Conor Murray in their starting line-up on Saturday after Andy Farrell named an inexperienced half-back combination for Saturday’s Autumn Nations Cup showdown, but the absence of another high-profile player could well come to dictate how the encounter plays out.

The absence of Irish captain Sexton, forced by a hamstring strain suffered in last week’s win over Wales, and 89-Test veteran Conor Murray, who is left among the replacements, means Leinster fly-half Ross Byrne is trusted to marshall Ireland outside club colleague Jamison Gibson-Park, a pairing that have just two Test starts between them.

It is an area that England may look to expose by pressuring them in defence, just as they have done so in their last three outings. Earlier this year they secured a dominant 24-12 victory at Twickenham that could and should have been far larger given the dominance Eddie Jones’s side enjoyed, with the Six Nations victory coming six months after a record 57-15 thrashing in their World Cup warm up. The two wins came off the back of the victory that set England’s wheels in motion towards the Rugby World Cup final that year, with their 2019 Six Nations triumph in Dublin one of the performances of the Eddie Jones era to knock off the then-defending champions on their own turf.

But on all three of those occasions, England had a not-so-secret weapon: Manu Tuilagi.

The centre has featured six times against Ireland since his first appearance back in 2011, in a World Cup warm-up where he certainly made his presence felt. Tuilagi scored that day and nearly bagged another from an interception on his own 22, though Irish fans will also remember the painful memory of the tackle that ended David Wallace’s career that day.

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But rather notably, when Tuilagi plays, England win. Ireland have not won when the Sale Sharks midfielder has been involved, and given their back-to-back losses to the Irish in 2017 and 2018, his return to fitness 18 months ago and England’s sudden dominance in this fixture are no coincidence. Both sides operate on gainline success, and the presence of a 111kg powerhouse centre certainly helps to produce that.

Which is why his absence this week, and indeed through the whole of the Autumn Nations Cup and Six Nations next year due to a ruptured Achilles, provides the greatest intrigue of Saturday’s Twickenham encounter: can England beat Ireland without Tuilagi?

The answer is of course yes, but whether they have yet worked out how to do so remains a mystery. Though England have won their last two games by a cumulative 74-5, they did come against Italy and Georgia – tier two sides as both Eddie Jones and forwards coach Matt Proudfoot have hammered home in complete disregard of Italy’s efforts of late. Against an Irish side that

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