England stand on the brink of a historic double in Dublin tomorrow. Eddie Jones’ men can establish a new world record of 19 successive Test victories and claim back-to-back Grand Slams for the first time ever, plus collect the Six Nations trophy won last Saturday and gather a Triple Crown.
Out to stop them are a highly- motivated Ireland team, albeit one shorn of the talents of scrum-half Conor Murray, full-back Rob Kearney plus man-mountain and line-out expert Devin Toner through injury.
Joe Schmidt’s men will be desperate to recapture the adulation that followed Ireland’s stunning 40-29 win over New Zealand in Chicago in November.
The bragging rights that epic victory gave the men in green have been dissipated by defeats to Scotland and Wales in a championship that was supposed to create a titanic finale against the reigning champions in Dublin.
Instead, Ireland are cast in the role of party-poopers, a team capable of ruining England’s big day, but no longer the standard bearers of European rugby’s bid to eclipse the All Blacks.
England are the one team in the Six Nations that have been consistently winning away from home since Jones rocked up at Twickenham in November 2015, a fact that will not have gone unnoticed by Lions coach Warren Gatland when he picks what is expected to be a 37-strong squad to tour New Zealand this summer.
Another victory on the road tomorrow will ensure England dominate that selection, as Gatland will need players who are comfortable in hostile surroundings. With a combined 704 caps, England’s starting XV now boasts the kind of experience needed to challenge the All Blacks.
Head coach Jones has been at pains to deflect attention away from his influence and he again name-checked his predecessor, Stuart Lancaster, for praise, although it is obvious the wily Australian has taken the team much further than the Cumbrian achieved.
“It won’t be an achievement for me, it will be an achievement for the team,” said Jones. “We’re in this together: coaching staff, the staff and the players — we all work together. The guy that I think should get a lot of credit for the team’s success is Stuart Lancaster. He was the guy that brought this team through, went through some hard yards with them. Most of the players are still the same.”
While Jones is correct about the make-up of the squad, what has changed is their mind-set and ability to become consistent winners than gallant runners up under Lancaster, whose teams finished second in the championship four times in a row.
The forecast for Dublin is rain, clearing later, which is a factor that England will need to be wary of, given the expected aerial bombardment from Schmidt’s kickers.
The return of Billy Vunipola gives the Saracens No8 an opportunity to cement his position as a potential Lions starter. He comes up against Jamie Heaslip, who has the same motivation but lacks his opposite number’s ball-carrying power.
Sexton is crucial to Ireland’s cause — and that worries the home fans. There is a growing belief that the home side rely far too heavily on their outside-half and, when fit, Murray. Fracture their influence on games and Ireland become a less-effective team is the accusation thrown at Schmidt.
Ireland have produced an outstanding young tight-head prop in Tadgh Furlong and when they beat the All Blacks they scored two tries through their driving maul from line-outs. But Joe Launchbury is the best maul destroyer in world rugby and will have to get into the mass of bodies early to disrupt this key Irish tactic.
Swapping Vunipola for Nathan Hughes and Anthony Watson for Jack Nowell highlights England’s strength in depth and their replacements’ bench remains a key factor in their bid to make rugby history.
Ireland also have talent to deploy later on, but in Mako Vunipola, Jamie George, Kyle Sinckler, Tom Wood and Hughes, England are confident they have game changers or finishers, depending on the circumstances.
In 2011, England went in search of Slam glory in Dublin and were beaten 24-8. A similar damp squib of a trophy presentation remains a possibility unless Jones and his men live up to their billing as the second best team in the world.