Peter O’Mahony believes Ireland’s current team is the best he has ever played in ahead of a pivotal Guinness Six Nations showdown with England.

Andy Farrell’s men will run out at Twickenham as overwhelming favourites and have the chance to retain the championship title with a round to spare.

Captain O’Mahony has lined up alongside the likes of Brian O’Driscoll, Paul O’Connell and Johnny Sexton during his Test career, but feels the class of 2024 is arguably the greatest Irish side of that period.

“Look, I’ve been lucky to play with lots of good players and teams,” said the Munster flanker, who will win his 104th cap in south-west London.

“If I had to nail the colours to the mast I’d have to say yes.

“It’s hard to compare because rugby has moved on and the game is different, but in a short answer, I think it is.

“I think the quality of player, it’s a really, really healthy, good, thought-provoking, enjoyable environment, but obviously the quality of performance and results speaks for itself.

“Hard to compare but yeah, it’s certainly up there anyway.”

Ireland have triumphed in each of the past four meetings with England and will set a new championship record of 12 consecutive wins by extending that run on Saturday evening.

Doing so with a bonus-point will be sufficient to clinch the title, while the extra point would not be required if Scotland fail to beat Italy and score at least four tries earlier in the day.

World Cup semi-finalists England, who are priced at 4-1 to win by bookmakers, are still striving for consistency under head coach Steve Borthwick.

Yet O’Mahony warned Ireland’s pursuit of successive Grand Slams could easily be derailed as he dismissed the significance of the pre-match predictions.

“It’s not something that we really buy in to,” the 34-year-old said of the favourites tag.

“I know you’re probably sick of hearing it from me, but it’s a Test match tomorrow, Ireland versus England. It’s about who plays better tomorrow. It’s not about anything else.

“It’s not about previous form or where you stand, it’s about who plays better tomorrow and that’s something that we’ve always been focused on, our performance.

“We know if we play well tomorrow we’ll be in with a shout. But if we don’t fire this English team has incredible quality and can beat anyone on their day.

“It’s not long ago they were competing in the last two games of the World Cup. We know we’re in for a huge test tomorrow here at Twickenham as always.”

Ben Stokes bagging a wicket with his first ball in 251 days was described as “magical” by England assistant Jeetan Patel on an otherwise difficult day in Dharamsala.

England appeared bereft after a wicketless first session on day two of the fifth Test as hundreds from Rohit Sharma (103) and Shubman Gill (110) carried India into a position of outright dominance.

Stokes had one trump card left and used it in the second over after lunch, bowling competitively for the first time since July 1 last year and producing a beauty which thudded into Rohit’s off stump.

India closed on 473 for eight and a lead of 255 after England fought back in the final session, while Stokes’ instant impact and his five-over spell which yielded one for 17 augurs well for the future.

“He’s a freak,” said Patel. “It was almost written in the stars that he was going to bowl a jaffa first up. It’s magical, isn’t it? It’s so nice to see him back.

“He came on to bowl when the English crowds are waking up; they’re flicking on the TV and the first thing they see is Ben Stokes bowling a really good delivery to Rohit Sharma.”

Stokes has been a specialist batter for the last eight months and had surgery in November to remove a bone spur and reinforce his meniscus with stitches to try to resolve a longstanding left knee issue.

Stokes had made a “pinky promise” with England’s physiotherapist Ben Davies not to bowl on this tour but he has progressed well enough in his recovery and been operating at full tilt in practice recently.

Having teased the possibility of resuming his all-rounder status in recent weeks, the England captain broke his vow to Davies and showed he was worth the wait but barely acknowledged his breakthrough.

“We all know how we can round our attack out, especially in conditions like these where you’ve usually got two spinners, two seamers and then you want your third in Stokesy,” said Patel.

“It was nice to see him back at the crease but we’ve just got to be careful we don’t push him too far, it’s still early days. It’s exciting to see him support the bowlers on a day where it’s a hard slog.”

England’s hopes of a consolation win to end the series with a 3-2 loss steadily slipped away on Friday, with the efforts of Rohit and Gill added to by debutant Devdutt Padikkal (65) and Sarfaraz Khan (56).

All of India’s top five made fifty-plus scores but they lurched from 376 for three to 428 for eight as Shoaib Bashir and Tom Hartley made inroads, plugging away despite toiling for much of the day.

Off-spinner Bashir was tireless and claimed 44-5-170-4, while slow left-armer Hartley was similarly resolute and snared Ravindra Jadeja and Ravichandran Ashwin in the same over in his 39-3-126-2.

The pair’s prospects of game time for their counties this summer are uncertain, with Bashir behind Jack Leach in the Somerset pecking order, while Hartley’s Lancashire have signed Nathan Lyon.

“My work continues when they are not with England,” said former New Zealand off-spinner Patel. “I am not the sort of bloke who is going to leave them in the lurch.

“It’s probably too far away to talk about it. But it would be nice to see these guys get more opportunities to bowl, get more overs in them, because they obviously have something to offer.”

Danny Care was presented with his national academy report in anticipation of his 100th cap and the England scrum-half jokes that the assessment made two decades ago is still accurate now.

Care will become the sixth England men’s Test centurion if he steps off the bench in Saturday’s Guinness Six Nations match against Ireland with his extended family, including his wife Jodie and three children, all present at Twickenham.

When the squad gathered on Thursday to celebrate the occasion, they were read out the 37-year-old’s hand-written Under-18 report that had been obtained by attack coach Richard Wigglesworth.

“Wiggy got handed it at our training camp in York last week and was asked to give it to me. He said ‘there’s no way I’m giving it to him yet. I’m going to have some fun first’,” Care said.

“He did a little bit of a montage of good and bad bits from my career. The report said ‘he lacks a bit of physicality, box-kicking is slightly inconsistent’. I’d say 18 years later it’s still the same!

“The cool line at the end of it was ‘future England player’. There was also ‘he tries a bit too much and makes a few mistakes, but he’ll have a crack’.

“Wigglesworth had a bit of fun with that and it’s come a full circle. I’m still quite similar, I’d say.”

Care’s passage to the milestone has been far from plain sailing after being dropped by Eddie Jones in 2018, resulting in four years spent in the international wilderness until his dazzling form for Harlequins forced a recall.

Back in the saddle for the 2022 tour to Australia, he was then hauled off before half-time of the Sydney decider and once again he appeared to have been frozen out.


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But upon Steve Borthwick’s appointment as Jones’ successor in time for the 2023 Six Nations, the Test odyssey of England’s most attacking scrum-half was given a new lease of life.


“As a parent you want to inspire your kids and if they can maybe have a look at my career and go ‘dad didn’t give up, he kept trying’, then maybe there’s a message out there for them to believe in yourself and keep going,” he said.

“Because it would have been quite easy for me to sack it off and not want to do it any more.

“But I’ve always had that drive to wear the shirt again. It might be my last opportunity to wear it at Twickenham, the stadium where I’ve played at a lot of times, so I’m desperate to get out there on the weekend and have some fun.

“I’ve just tried to embrace these moments because it’s not going to last forever. That’s what I’ve been telling the young lads in the team – embrace it and enjoy it.”

“Now I’m still here blagging it! I still think a lot of people can’t believe I’m here – I’m the same.”

It is fitting that Care will reach the century as a replacement having made the role of giving England zip and energy late in games his own. With 56 substitute appearances already made, no Test player has appeared more off the bench.

“Everyone always asks me if I get annoyed being on the bench and I genuinely don’t. It’s not that I prefer it, but I love it,” he said.

“I love that role because you’re on the pitch at the end. You have the ability to help your team win the game and you’re on the pitch for the final whistle. When you’re a starter as a nine, you very rarely play the 80 minutes these days.”

England and Ireland clash in round four of the Guinness Six Nations at Twickenham on Saturday, with the 142nd meeting between the rivals packed with significance and sub-plots.

Here, the PA news agency examines five talking points ahead of the match.

The real world champions?

“Let’s be clear on Ireland – right now we can all agree they are the best team in the world,” were the words Steve Borthwick used when assessing England’s round four opponents, adding his voice to a theme that has developed throughout the tournament. Former Wales captain Sam Warburton holds a similar view that has been greeted with indignation in South Africa given the Springboks retained the World Cup last autumn. It will take the rivals’ two-Test series in July to settle the debate, but for now Andy Farrell’s green machine appear invulnerable as they aim
to become the first side to win back to back Grand Slams in the Six Nations era.

Against all odds

The odds are startling – England are rated 4-1 to win with Ireland 1/5 to continue their Grand Slam march. It is hard to recall a more lopsided evaluation for a match at Twickenham and Borthwick’s men undoubtedly face a gargantuan task to rebound from their 30-21 mauling by Scotland, a game in which they made 25 handling errors and gifted 22 turnovers, and deny Ireland a fifth successive victory in the fixture. Murrayfield was the pivotal encounter for England, who must now topple the favourites and France in Lyon to avoid finishing the Six Nations with just two wins for a fourth successive year, a run that would evoke memories of the dark days of the early 1970s and mid 1980s.

Manny mania

Immanuel Feyi-Waboso’s inclusion on the right wing at the expense of Elliot Daly should thrill England fans even if the 21-year-old Exeter finisher has played only a handful of professional matches. Injecting genuine X-factor into the team, Feyi-Waboso has been told to go hunting for the ball in the hope his pace, strength and running lines can make a difference against the champions. But a cautionary tale can be seen in the similar trajectory of Henry Arundell, who exploded on to the scene amid a flurry of stunning tries but now plays in France and is unavailable as a result. It is a failure of England’s that they were unable to find him an ingoing role and they must ensure Feyi-Waboso’s vast talent is fully realised.

Clash of the Titans

It will be a duel to savour when young second row enforcers George Martin and Joe McCarthy go toe to toe. There is a thuggish-ness to both forwards as they look to inflict maximum damage on each side of the ball. And as they share similar stats across the board – both are 22-years-old, same height, comparable weights and experience – there is a real sense that this could be the first of many battles between the type of menacing tight five forward every team needs. Martin’s coming of age performance came against South Africa in the World Cup semi-finals, McCarthy’s against France in round one of this Six Nations. Neither will want to give an inch, the type of menacing tight five forward every team needs.

100 not out

If and when Danny Care steps off the bench at Twickenham, he will become the sixth England men’s player to reach the 100 cap milestone. The enduringly brilliant Harlequins scrum-half made his professional debut in 2003 and even at 37-years-old he is still playing the electrifying rugby that thrills audiences. One of the game’s most popular characters has done it the hard way too, long playing second fiddle to Ben Youngs and then having to resurrect his career, having been cast into Test exile after the 2018 ‘Black Hole Game’ against Japan. Not bad for a self-confessed nutritionist’s nightmare who credits a regimen of cookies and saunas for his longevity.

Immanuel Feyi-Waboso has been ordered to go hunting for the ball when he makes his full England debut in Saturday’s Guinness Six Nations clash with Ireland.

With two replacement appearances in the bank, including a try-scoring cameo against Scotland in round three, the Cardiff-born 21-year-old is considered ready to start on the right wing at the expense of veteran Elliot Daly.

One of the most exciting young talents in the Gallagher Premiership was persuaded by Steve Borthwick to opt for the Red Rose over Wales in January – less than a year after he was playing in the third tier of English rugby for struggling Taunton Titans.


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Now that his rapid development has accelerated with a first Test start, he has been instructed to make his pace, power and work rate count against the Grand Slam champions.

“When I watch Manny, I see his ability to come off the wing and pop up off scrum-half – as he did against Scotland – and pop up inside and outside fly-half,” Borthwick said.

“I have seen him several times pop up in the middle and do a pick and go at the ruck because he wants the ball in his hands. That is the encouragement I have for him – get that ball in his hands.

“After I told him he was starting, he was very grateful and thanked me numerous times then asked me ‘what do you want from me?’.

“I said ‘find the ball and get it in your hands’. There are some nuances, but the message was ‘I want you to get the ball in your hands as many times as possible’.”

Feyi-Waboso missed last week’s training camp in York in order to sit an exam for his medical degree at Exeter University, and Borthwick believes he has the temperament to thrive against Ireland.

“Basically we think he’s one of those people who is good at everything. We’re yet to find something he’s not good at, but we’ll keep trying,” Borthwick said.

“We certainly asked him how his exam went, he said he felt it went OK, which I took as he’d aced it. But we’ll find out in due course when he tells us his results.

“I sense he’s a guy who takes things in his stride. He’s a really calm and composed character. And given everything he’s doing in his life, and what he’s gone through so far, it’s a real strength.

“Each challenge that has been thrown towards him, he’s risen to that level and I expect he’ll do the same again on Saturday.”

Ireland boss Andy Farrell insists under-fire England remain capable of representing one of the ultimate tests in world rugby ahead of a tantalising Twickenham showdown.

Farrell’s in-form side are odds-on favourites for a fifth successive victory over their rivals to stay on course for back-to-back Guinness Six Nations Grand Slams following bonus-point wins over France, Italy and Wales.

Amid ongoing criticism of their performances, Steve Borthwick’s hosts are battling to stay in title contention after suffering a 30-21 Calcutta Cup defeat to Scotland last time out.

Englishman Farrell has little interest in the negativity surrounding his native country and is preparing for “one hell of a battle” on Saturday.

“I’ve no doubt that England would have loved to have put the best performance out against Scotland and come away with the victory there,” he said.

“But I’ve no doubt now that over the last two weeks that concentrates their mind to have another chance to have a crack at us.

“You expect them to be at their best and if they’re at their best you expect them to be as hard as anyone in world rugby to beat.”

England were two minutes away from reaching the World Cup final in October but have struggled to fully convince since Borthwick succeeded Eddie Jones in December 2022.

“I don’t get involved with the criticism at all,” continued Farrell. “I don’t look at it.

“I look at the individuals the way that they’re playing, the coaching staff that they got, the plan that they’ve got, a fantastic side that is going to be preparing to give it everything they’ve got at the weekend, so that makes them unbelievably dangerous.

“We just prepare for them to be at their best and if that’s the case it’s going to be one hell of a battle.”

Ireland twice lost to Jones’ England in 2020 – the first year of Farrell’s reign – but have since dominated the fixture, including clinching last year’s championship clean sweep with a 29-16 success in Dublin.

Extending the winning streak could see the visitors retain their crown with a fixture to spare.

While Farrell was not entirely satisfied with his side’s performances in their last two Six Nations wins over the Red Rose, he refused to rule out another fragmented affair this weekend.

“I’m not Mystic Meg, I don’t know what’s going to happen,” he replied, when asked if he was confident of avoiding a repeat of the disjointed displays.

“You take every game on it’s own course really and judge it and England did very well at slowing us down last year.

“There were a lot of stoppages within the game and it wasn’t just errors, the game was slow.

“Whether that’s a tactic of theirs or not, I don’t know, but we’ll have to expect more of the same I would have thought.”

Farrell won eight England caps during his playing days and later served his country as a coach under Stuart Lancaster before being let go by Jones following a dismal home World Cup in 2015.

The former dual-code international dismissed any notion of sentiment as he prepares for his latest Twickenham return.

“It’s no different to any other game,” said Farrell, who has recalled fit-again full-back Hugo Keenan in place of Ciaran Frawley in the only change to his starting XV.

“We, and certainly I, concentrate on the week ahead and this game is no more important than the first game in Marseille or no more important than the Italy game or the Wales game at home.

“It’s another chance for us to go out there and show the best of ourselves, albeit a tough old task.

“Everyone knows it’s a tough place to go and get a victory. But that’s the challenge in front of us every week.”

England have taken steps to relieve the pressure on their under-performing stars with Steve Borthwick admitting his players are feeling the weight of the jersey.

An Ireland side pursuing consecutive Grand Slam titles – a feat never achieved in the Guinness Six Nations era – are overwhelming favourites to prevail when the rivals clash at Twickenham on Saturday.

England, meanwhile, have been forced to regroup after a nine-point mauling by Scotland in round three that has left them facing another deflating Championship.

Borthwick has freshened up his side after the Edinburgh collapse, giving starts to wing Immanuel Feyi-Waboso, scrum-half Alex Mitchell and lock George Martin, while Marcus Smith and Alex Dombrandt are new faces on the bench.

England’s head coach stressed the importance of continuity in selection, but also revealed that his biggest task since Duhan van der Merwe ran riot at Murrayfield has been psychological.

“We know that against Scotland there were errors,” said Borthwick, in reference to the 22 turnovers and 25 handling errors conceded by his side.

“It’s probably the first time in a while I’d seen the weight of the shirt feels heavy on the players. We’ve worked around that and to develop that.

“We try to make an environment where the players enjoy it, where we know mistakes are going to be made, but still continue to do the right things.

“I back the players. Yes we made errors. We’re disappointed in the performance and we’re disappointed in the result.

“I’ve made some of changes to the team but I believe in these players. I sense a determination in them to put in a performance this weekend and there has been ever since the end of that Scotland game.”

England have managed only two wins in each of their last three Six Nations and with Ireland next up – Borthwick described them as the best team in the world – followed by France in Lyon, they could endure the same outcome in 2024.

Captain Jamie George admitted they “tightened up” against Scotland but has told his players not to retreat into their shells.

“The main focus for us the last couple of weeks in particular has been around making sure that we can be ourselves, making sure that it is still okay to make mistakes but that we’re going to learn very quickly from those,” George said.

Feyi-Waboso’s inclusion on the right wing at the expense of Elliot Daly is an audacious selection for a player whose two caps against Italy and Scotland total 20 minutes as a replacement.

But the 21-year-old Exeter Chief made an impact at Murrayfield, including running in a try, and is picked less than a year after playing for Taunton Titans in National League One.

“Manny’s ready – he’s more than ready. You’ve seen that in the time he’s had on the field so far in the Six Nations,” George said.

“He’s an incredible talent, but the maturity we’ve seen from Manny is something that’s impressed me a lot.

“His willingness to learn, he’s eager, you’re constantly having to pull him back, but he’s so excited for this opportunity, you can see that, and that energy is infectious throughout the team.”

Danny Care will win his 100th cap off the bench to become the sixth England men’s player to reach the milestone.

Immanuel Feyi-Waboso will make his first start for England in Saturday’s Guinness Six Nations clash with Ireland at Twickenham.

In an audacious selection by head coach Steve Borthwick, Feyi-Waboso will line-up on the right wing less than a year after playing for National League One side Taunton Titans.

The 21-year-old made his debut off the bench against Italy at the start of the tournament and also came on as a replacement for the round three defeat by Scotland, both appearances totalling 20 minutes.

Apart from scoring a try in his cameo at Murrayfield, the Exeter Chief showed significant promise and is chosen ahead of 67-cap veteran Elliot Daly, who is given the number 23 jersey instead.

Borthwick has made three changes in personnel and one positional switch following the 30-21 mauling in Edinburgh, but there is still no place for Freddie Steward at full-back with George Furbank continuing at 15.

Ireland have recalled “world-class” Hugo Keenan for Saturday’s clash with England but will be without lock James Ryan for the remainder of the Guinness Six Nations.

Fit-again full-back Keenan replaces Ciaran Frawley in the only change to Andy Farrell’s starting XV after overcoming the knee issue which caused him to miss the 31-7 round-three win over Wales.

Lock Ryan, who has been reduced to a peripheral role during the championship, suffered a “freak” bicep injury in training on Wednesday and will sit out the trip to Twickenham, in addition to next week’s finale against Scotland.

“I think it would be a boost for any side in world rugby,” head coach Farrell said of the return of Keenan.

“He’s a world-class full-back.

“It’s testament to him and it’s no shock to us that he’s been able to get himself back to this position to be involved this weekend as he’s been unbelievably diligent over the last few weeks to make that happen.”

Ulster second row Iain Henderson has recovered from a dislocated toe to take Ryan’s place on a bench which once again includes a six-two split of forwards and backs.

Ryan was strong contender to succeed Johnny Sexton as Ireland captain following the World Cup but the emergence of Leinster team-mate Joe McCarthy has limited him to just one start during this year’s tournament.

“He got injured yesterday in training, just a freak accident really, just a reaction, reaching out for a tackle that was non-contact and he’s injured his bicep,” Farrell said of Ryan.

“He won’t be available for the remainder of this Six Nations.”

Prop Finlay Bealham and the versatile Frawley join Henderson among the replacements, with Oli Jager, who has a knee problem, and centre Stuart McCloskey dropping out of the match-day 23.

Garry Ringrose is fit following a shoulder injury but must wait for his first international appearance since the World Cup due to the impressive form of midfield pair Robbie Henshaw and Bundee Aki.

Reigning champions Ireland, who are chasing successive Grand Slams on the back of bonus-point wins over France, Italy and Wales, could retain their title with a game to spare with victory in south-west London.

Steve Borthwick’s hosts were two minutes away from reaching the World Cup final in October but have attracted criticism for some underwhelming performances.

Englishman Farrell is braced for “one hell of a battle” against “unbelievably dangerous” opponents seeking to respond to Calcutta Cup defeat to Scotland.

“I don’t get involved with the criticism at all,” he said of England.

“I look at the individuals the way that they’re playing, the coaching staff that they got, the plan that they’ve got, a fantastic side that is going to be preparing to give it everything they’ve got at the weekend.

“That makes them unbelievably dangerous, we just prepare for them to be at their best and if that’s the case it’s going to be one hell of a battle.

“If they’re at their best, you expect them to be as hard as anyone in world rugby to beat.”

Ireland team: H Keenan (Leinster); C Nash (Munster), R Henshaw (Leinster), B Aki (Connacht), J Lowe (Leinster); J Crowley (Munster), J Gibson-Park (Leinster); A Porter (Leinster), D Sheehan (Leinster), T Furlong (Leinster), J McCarthy (Leinster), T Beirne (Munster), P O’Mahony (Munster, capt), J van der Flier (Leinster), C Doris (Leinster).

Replacements: R Kelleher (Leinster), C Healy (Leinster), F Bealham (Connacht), I Henderson (Ulster), R Baird (Leinster), J Conan (Leinster), C Murray (Munster), C Frawley (Leinster).

England assistant Marcus Trescothick was unable to put much of a positive spin on their latest batting collapse but insisted they are not “dead and buried” in Dharamsala yet.

With the Test series in India already lost, England are searching for a consolation win and Zak Crawley made a battling 79 but the tourists unravelled from 137 for two and 175 for three to 218 all out.

Kuldeep Yadav collected five for 72 while Ravichandran Ashwin marked his 100th Test with figures of four for 51 as all 10 England wickets fell to spin in chilly conditions before India closed on 135 for one.

The in-form Yashasvi Jaiswal muscled three sixes in his 57 off 58 balls while Rohit Sharma went to stumps on day one of this fifth and final Test on 52 not out to leave India just 83 runs behind.

“It’s been a disappointing day,” Trescothick said. “We were hoping for a lot more with winning the toss. We’re a bit behind the game, it’s not quite the score we wanted.

“We got to lunch quite nicely, had a bit of luck here and there and managed to get to that point where we were OK and the afternoon was where it all changed.

“Kuldeep spun the ball hard, more than we’ve seen from anyone else so far. Of course we’re disappointed to not quite match up to what we expect.

“But you never look upon it as ‘we’re dead and buried’. Everyone will take a look at themselves and potentially go, ‘All right, I can be better than I’ve been’ and hopefully we can put that right.”

While the dismissals of Jonny Bairstow, on his 100th Test, Joe Root and Ben Stokes within eight balls was the turning point as England dramatically crumbled, Ollie Pope had another forgettable outing.

Pope’s brilliant 196 underpinned a famous England triumph in Hyderabad in the series opener but he has made just 100 runs in his eight other innings and often appeared skittish when at the crease.

England head coach Brendon McCullum said recently the key for Pope is “to not have played his innings before he goes out there” but he was again ill-at-ease in his 24 balls here.

In the final over before lunch, Pope rashly charged at Kuldeep but seemingly failed to pick the left-arm wrist-spinner’s googly and was stumped by a long way by wicketkeeper Dhruv Jurel for 11.

“Ollie Pope is someone who cannot stay still at the crease for a long time,” Kuldeep said. “His style is such that he steps out a lot and tries to dominate the spinners by hitting them down the ground.

“He had stepped out early, so it was easy for me to change the variation. It was not that I had planned in advance. When I saw him coming out, I changed it.”

Trescothick, though, threw his backing behind England’s number three.

“Getting into an innings is always challenging over here, and facing high quality spin,” Trescothick said. “That is part of his game he is looking to improve on.

“I think we’d all agree that after his 196 in Hyderabad we had seen an improvement and we saw parts of his game that are definitely getting better. Let’s keep allowing that to happen.

“The more we knock down and put pressure on people, the challenges will come. He’s definitely improving, as are many other players in our team.”

While Shoaib Bashir recovered sufficiently from a stomach upset to take the field, Ollie Robinson was still feeling unwell and left at the team hotel, bringing England’s number down to 13 fit players.

Trescothick and fellow England assistant Paul Collingwood have been drafted in as substitute fielders at 48 and 47 years old respectively. Trescothick, though, hopes to avoid fielding duties.

“If I do, I’ll be standing at long-leg or something like that,” the former Somerset opener said. “I think Colly’s chomping at the bit to get on there!

“I think we’ve worked out a plan; it’s not going to happen, we’re not going to get on the field, we’ve got enough reserves in place.”

Sam Underhill is savouring his England revival having feared his international career might already be over.

Underhill is poised to win his 34th cap in Saturday’s Guinness Six Nations clash with Ireland at Twickenham after returning to favour under Steve Borthwick – a comeback he views as a personal triumph.

Still only 27, the big-hitting Bath flanker missed 20 successive Tests from the second match of the 2022 tour to Australia because of a combination of concussion and selection.

But a sliding doors moment arrived when Jack Willis sustained a neck injury in last autumn’s World Cup and Underhill was propelled straight into the back row for the bronze final against Argentina.

A defensive masterclass consisting of 24 tackles resulted in the man of the match award and now that he has played four consecutive Tests, he grants himself a moment of recognition.

“It’s been class. All I wanted to do was to get back into this team and, if I’m perfectly honest, I was doubtful that that would happen,” Underhill said.

“This is the first time I’ve done a full campaign with Steve, under him as a coach. I played in the Aussie tour and then didn’t I play again until the third-fourth play-off, which was 18 months.

“My aim personally was to get back here. Now that I am, as a player you’re constantly looking for challenges, or things to go wrong or not be going that well.

“Whereas actually now, I am where I want to be and while I want to keep on improving, I have taken a moment to say to myself, ‘hey, you’re doing it, well done’.


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“I’m not just content to be here, I want to win with this team and help and perform as well as I can for them. It’s been class.”

Underhill’s standing among his team-mates was evident in July when Ben Earl spoke of the “shock” that rippled through the squad when the destructive openside was dropped early in the build-up to the World Cup.

As one of half of Eddie Jones’ ‘Kamikaze Kids’ who lit up Japan 2019, he was expected to travel to France having proven he can thrive on the greatest stage of all.

Instead, he was consigned to playing in the Premiership Rugby Cup for Bath in what was a test of his ability to rationalise the vagaries of selection.

“It would be remiss of me, and certainly any player, to think that they have to be in any team,” Underhill said.

“I respect the other players too much to say ‘I should be there’. A decision’s going to have to be made at some point, someone’s going to miss out.

“But someone missing out doesn’t mean they are a bad player. You’re not a better player for being picked than not being picked, or for getting a contract or not getting a contract. That’s the hard thing to get your head around sometimes.

“A lot of people talk about being process-driven but that’s easier said than done. When you aren’t picked, the ability to think that this isn’t actually a reflection of where I am, is important but tough.

“You’re allowed to be disappointed if you’re not selected, you’re allowed to be upset. What isn’t great for you is if you then let that affect your behaviour and let that affect your actions that come afterwards.”

Borthwick names his team to face Ireland at lunchtime on Thursday with England looking to bounce back after a comprehensive defeat to Scotland in round three.

Fin Smith is a major doubt for England’s clash with Ireland on Saturday with Marcus Smith ready to step into the breach for the penultimate round of the Guinness Six Nations.

Fin Smith was the solitary member of Steve Borthwick’s squad to miss training on Tuesday as he recovers from a calf injury and with only Thursday’s main session left before the Twickenham showdown, time is running out to prove his fitness.

The 21-year-old fly-half has won his first two caps in his breakthrough season for England, coming on as a replacement for George Ford against Italy and Scotland, but could now slip out of the 23.

“We have tried to look after him the last couple of days and we are hoping he will be in full training on Thursday. We are looking after him,” skills and kicking coach Kevin Sinfield said.

If Fin Smith is unable to convince Borthwick on Thursday that he is capable of facing Grand Slam-chasing Ireland, Marcus Smith is available to take his place on the bench.

The Harlequins player missed the first three rounds of the tournament, also because of calf damage, but could even challenge Ford for a place in the starting XV if Borthwick decides significant changes are needed in response to the 30-21 mauling by Scotland.

“Fly-half is a position where we have plenty of strength so Steve will make that call on Thursday after the session. If everyone comes through on Thursday, Steve has obviously got a headache,” Sinfield said.

“To have Marcus available having not had him available throughout the Six Nations is a big boost for everybody.

“Not only with what he brings on the field, but off the field as well. He has got some bounce about him, a big smile and he loves being out on the training field. He has had a big impact this week.

“He comes in and is himself all the time so we missed him in those first few weeks. I’ve loved working with him and he’s an incredible talent. He can play, that boy.”

Borthwick names his team on Thursday afternoon and England’s head coach will be hoping for a response after the backwards step taken at Murrayfield.

The most damning statistic to emerge from a fourth successive Calcutta Cup defeat was the 25 handling errors made, a staggering number that prevented their attack from functioning.

“That was an anomaly for us. We certainly haven’t seen that throughout training at all,” Sinfield said.

“We’ve worked particularly hard in trying to understand why it happened. Some of it is difficult to understand.

“When you’re trying to understand why someone’s dropped a ball, or someone’s thrown a pass without looking where the pass is going, there’s a bit more to it than the numbers.

“We’re trying to understand the people, what they are feeling and what they are seeing at that moment in time. So we’ve delved pretty deep into that.

“We put some balls down in the Scotland game, why that is we’ll never know for sure. But what we have to try to make sure is that it doesn’t happen again.”

Ben Stokes contends England have “massively evolved” since last summer’s Ashes and dismissed the notion that losing in India represents a step backwards under his leadership.

England have troubled India but Stokes is facing up to his first series defeat as captain, with Rohit Sharma’s side holding a 3-1 lead heading into the final Test, starting on Thursday in Dharamsala.

Past England teams might have already let their thoughts drift towards the flight home after a long tour but Stokes was adamant this iteration are hungry to finish the series on a positive note.

Indeed, one of the major differences he sees in his side since their last assignment – a 2-2 draw against Australia – is their readiness to do what is necessary to get into the team and keep the spot.

“The individuals and the team have massively evolved on this tour,” he said. “Progression doesn’t always show itself with the results. It doesn’t mean that we’ve gone backwards.

“I think the way in which everyone committed to becoming a better version of themselves from when we last played was quite obvious; everyone’s fitter, everyone was – I don’t want to say more desire – but it was just a really different feel around how we operated from the summer before.

“When you know that you’re part of something special, you want to work your nuts off to keep your place in the team.

“We’ve been on so many India tours, you know what it’s like when you get to an end of a long one that sometimes you start thinking about the end of the game, whereas honestly, I don’t think that anyone is thinking like that because every opportunity we feel at the moment is special to play for England.”

Before training at the picturesque HPCA Stadium on Wednesday, some England players are set to travel around 10km north and visit the Dalai Lama at his home in McLeod Ganj, although Stokes is unlikely to be among the contingent.

He will instead contemplate changes to his line-up and whether to include an extra seamer in the cooler mountain conditions, with James Anderson and Ollie Robinson fit after minor thigh and back troubles.

Stokes, though, insisted the XI would not be predicated on him returning to bowling for the first time since last July and doing so following left knee surgery last November would merely be a “bonus”.

Shoaib Bashir had a cut on his spinning finger tended to at Tuesday’s practice after a mammoth 70-over stint in Ranchi. This type of injury is common for spinners who experience an increase in workload, as evidenced by Moeen Ali’s struggles with the same issue last summer, but Stokes played down any worries.

“He’s probably bowled more in the last two months than he has ever,” Stokes said. “He was fine, he was just starting to feel it but I don’t think there’s any concern there.

“I put that down to him probably bowling more balls here in two months than he has for however long he’s been playing cricket for to be honest.”

Jonny Bairstow keeps his spot in the side despite a quiet series with the bat and will play his 100th Test, a dozen years on from his debut at Lord’s against the West Indies.

“I’m super excited for him and he’s been quite chipper the last couple of days,” Stokes said.

“I’ve been there for a lot of his career. Age-group cricket, I played against him and with him. Obviously we went on to play loads of cricket for England together.

“He’s one of England’s finest all-format batters, he’s done some unbelievable things with the red ball and the white ball.”

Asked about his white-ball intentions this year, Stokes confirmed he would be available for selection for the T20 World Cup in June after inspiring England to glory in the 2022 final in Australia.

“I’ve not even thought about that but I’m available,” he added. “Whether or not I’m in the plans for that is a different thing. But I still want to be part of that team going forward.”

Jonny Bairstow admitted becoming the latest member of England’s 100 Test club means a “hell of a lot” after being joined by close family and friends this week to mark the occasion in Dharamsala.

Bairstow is set to become the 17th Englishman to reach the prestigious milestone when the fifth Test against India starts on Thursday and could not wish for a more picture-perfect setting than the HPCA Stadium, which features stunning views of the Himalayan snow-capped mountains in the background.

Several of his nearest and dearest, including mother, sister, partner and infant son, have flown out to celebrate alongside Bairstow, who recognises the magnitude of the occasion.


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Unlike England captain Ben Stokes, who remarked in Rajkot earlier in the series of his own 100th Test being “just a number”, Bairstow intends to embrace every moment in what he anticipates will be an emotional week.

“It means a hell of a lot,” said Bairstow, well-known for wearing his heart on his sleeve. “Every young kid that sets out on a journey playing professional cricket wants to try and play 100 Test matches.

“You look back to 2012 when I made my debut at Lord’s, if 12 years later you’d said I’d be playing 100 Test matches, you’d snap your hand off for one but also pinching yourself as well.

“It’s great to have my family out here, it’s an amazing place to come, they’ve come to some pretty cool places along the way as well. It’s a special occasion for everyone who has been there on the journey.

“It will be an emotional week. I’m proud, you know what I’m like, I’m an emotional guy – so get the tissues ready! It’s a special week for me like it was a special week for Ben a few weeks ago.”

Bairstow, who coincidentally registered his 100th ODI appearance at the same venue, made his Test debut in May 2012 and has gone on to enjoy several giddy highs in the whites as well as a few crushing lows.

He amassed the most runs by a wicketkeeper in a calendar year in 2016 and lit the touchpaper for the Stokes-Brendon McCullum era with four jaw-dropping centuries in five innings in a stunning 2022.

But he had to rebound from a badly broken leg at the back end of that year while his place has seemed under relentless scrutiny. Having yet to pass 40 in four Tests in this series, there has been speculation he might be overlooked in the summer with Harry Brook to come back into the England side.


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As for whether he can cash in on his landmark appearance in England’s final assignment on the tour of India, who took an unassailable 3-1 lead last time out in Ranchi, Bairstow was sanguine.


“It would be nice,” said Bairstow. “Like in every game, you put your best foot forward.

“No matter what it is, I’ll be going out there, chewing my gum, puffing my chest out and trying to have a good time with the other 10 blokes out there.

“Whatever the situation is, we’ll be going out there with smiles on our faces, like we have done in the whole series.”

A chillier climate has greeted England in the foothills of the Himalayas and a couple of players were in their thermals in training on Tuesday morning, with conditions akin to the early English summer.

There has been speculation at England altering the balance of their bowling line-up, with the most recent match on this wicket in India’s domestic first-class competition four weeks ago showing all 36 wickets fell to seam.

“I’ve probably batted the worst I have all trip,” said Bairstow of his net session. “But the whole trip I’ve been happy with how I’ve been moving, I’ve been in the zone the whole way.”

England’s last visit here was blighted by concerns about the outfield ahead of a World Cup group game against Bangladesh last October, but Bairstow is satisfied there will be no issues this time.

“The transition that has been made to produce something like that has been amazing,” Bairstow added. “It’s absolutely stunning here.”

England won the SheBelieves Cup for the first time with a 3-0 win over Japan on this day in 2019.

A 2-1 victory against Brazil and a 2-2 draw against hosts the United States saw the Lionesses set up a winner-takes-all final-match showdown with Japan at the Raymond James Stadium in Tampa.

Lucy Staniforth, Karen Carney and Beth Mead were all on the scoresheet in the first half as England were crowned champions of the invitational round-robin tournament.

Staniforth put the Lionesses ahead in the 12th minute, collecting a flicked pass from Jodie Taylor before finishing low in the bottom-right corner of the net.

Taylor recorded her second assist of the game shortly afterwards, hooking the ball to Carney in the six-yard box for the winger to nod home to make it 2-0, before Mead scored on the half-hour mark following a great pass from Keira Walsh.

Victory came as a boost ahead of the Women’s World Cup later that year in France, where the Lionesses would reach the semi-finals, and England manager Phil Neville hailed his side’s efforts in the SheBelieves Cup as “sensational”.

He said: “It was a sensational performance. I wasn’t that bothered before the tournament whether we won or lost, I just wanted to see an improvement and we go home knowing we are definitely in the right direction.

“We just keep listening to USA, Japan and Brazil talk about how good we are. But we remain humble, have fun and enjoy moments like this.

“You don’t get many chances to get your hands on a trophy. It is my first as a manager so I am just going to enjoy it.”

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