Prospect of Ireland’s dream Six Nations weekend should leave England green with envy
Not even a wave of Saint Patrick’s hand from on high could have set up this weekend so perfectly for Ireland. These are rare ould times indeed in Dublin, an occasion for passing tales and glories with a Grand Slam to be won on the weekend of the patron saint. As the rest of the city pauses to revel in vague commemoration, for Andy Farrell’s side the focus will remain squarely on a job still be done. There may be time for a celebratory libation or three to toast a triumph come Saturday evening, but Ireland have never secured a Grand Slam in Dublin and the opportunity to crown this outstanding campaign is clear.
“It’s something that we’ve talked about from day one coming in, that it’s not been done here,” Farrell said ahead of his side’s shot at the Grand Slam. “We’ve earned the right to have a go at that so we know how much it means to the Irish people and their support has been unbelievable for us. You can feel the buzz.
“That’s what we’ve done, we’ve put ourselves in a position to have a crack at this and it’s something that we’ve been upfront about from the beginning, which is pretty pleasing. Now we’re here, we’ve got to deliver.”
England’s flight arrived later than anticipated on Thursday carrying a squad still picking up the pieces from a new Twickenham low and knowing they face an even tougher task on this final weekend. A home victory is far from fait accompli but certainly, for this weekend at least, it seems a little easier being green.
You could forgive the Rugby Football Union for casting envious glances out over the Irish Sea, with every facet of men’s rugby in Ireland seemingly working together in relative harmony. On the field, if the hosts’ challenge will be maintaining top speed right through the World Cup, England are still very much on the assembly line.
Steve Borthwick has repeatedly stressed that England are playing catch-up, emphasising how well Ireland, France, Scotland and Italy have used this four-year cycle to build, a luxury he does not have. This is their final truly competitive fixture before the autumn’s tournament, and Borthwick could do with two or three more individuals putting their hand up to be selection certainties.
In response to France’s demolition job, the England head coach looks both to the past and the future to try and trigger an immediate response. The midfield three of Owen Farrell, Manu Tuilagi and Henry Slade worked wonders at the Aviva Stadium in 2019 but have not been sighted since that year’s World Cup quarter-final. To add to the evening’s emerald edge, London Irish’s Henry Arundell makes his full international debut and a first-ever start on the wing as a professional.
The nature of that France loss could free them up, the thought that it cannot be that bad again releasing some of the pressure. There is every chance that was an aberration – England will surely be better this week – but Borthwick will fear another capitulation if the hosts strike early.
Ireland’s performance at Murrayfield last weekend was evidence of just how far cohesion and belief can take you, their on-the-hoof problem solving so emblematic of where Ireland are at. It would have been easy for Andy Farrell’s side to bemoan their bad luck and fold when all seemed to be going wrong late in the first half, but a swift sorting of plans over a half-time chuckle gave his squad improvise, adapt and overcome to set up this opportunity.
Farrell the elder has picked a side that is largely as expected, with news of clean bills of health for Dan Sheehan and Caelan Doris welcome. One more nudge between the uprights will take Johnny Sexton beyond Ronan O’Gara as the all-time leading Six Nations points scorer, and a Grand Slam sign-off really would be a fitting farewell to a championship the fly-half has so enriched.
“You’d never be able to live with yourself if you didn’t turn up and play well,” Sexton said this week. “It’s not the last game with this team, I certainly hope not. We’ve got a lot more of the journey left so I’m not really thinking like that. I’m just thinking about getting out there and putting in the best performance I can and trying to get everyone else on the same page.
“That’s the focus. You take the emotion out of it. It’s going to be emotional anyway. You’re playing England at home with something on the line. It’s what you’ve always wanted to do and where you’ve wanted to be.”
Scotland vs Italy
You wonder if Gregor Townsend will be just starting to fret about the visit of Italy, with the triple blow of losing Finn Russell, Stuart Hogg and Richie Gray tough to take. Not only are they three of Scotland’s best performers, but the trio form a significant part of Townsend’s leadership group, which has already lost regular vice-captain Grant Gilchrist to suspension.
That places a little extra pressure on captain Jamie Ritchie, who has had a couple of run-ins with officials during this campaign, and Blair Kinghorn, backed at fly-half ahead of Edinburgh-bound, Irish-born Ben Healy. A bonus point win would secure Scotland third place, which they would more than merit, but there was a slight sense in the second half against Ireland of a team running out of steam a little. Italy may not have taken their opportunities against Wales but remain mighty dangerous.
France vs Wales
Warren Gatland has positioned his side’s final game as a swansong for some fine servants to Wales, admitting he had been keen to give as many of them as possible a chance to go out on the pitch. “If I look at the squad, going through it, there’s up to eight players in there who are potentially playing their last Six Nations game,” explained Gatland. “The message to them is enjoy the occasion and moment. For a lot of them, it might be the last time they do that.”
With Fabien Galthie and Gatland’s old mucker Shaun Edwards calling the shots, any complacency from France post-Twickenham exultation would come as a surprise but perhaps the Welsh old guard have it in them for one last hurrah.