Ireland face wounded England for historic Grand Slam
|Venue: Aviva Stadium, Dublin Date: Saturday, 18 March Kick-off: 17:00 GMT|
|Coverage: Listen on BBC Radio 5 Live and BBC Radio Ulster; follow live text commentary on the BBC Sport website and app|
The 2023 Six Nations has reached what promises to be a captivating climax as Grand Slam-hunting Ireland welcome a wounded England to Dublin on St Patrick’s Day weekend.
Saturday’s tournament closer at the Aviva Stadium could be a huge step in Ireland’s journey under Andy Farrell.
Having entered the competition as the world’s number one side, the Irish have masterfully navigated their way through the first four rounds to give themselves a shot at winning a fourth Grand Slam – and first in Dublin.
After a memorable 2022 that included a Test series triumph over the All Blacks in New Zealand, a Six Nations clean sweep would be the ultimate statement six months out from the World Cup in France.
England are in a different boat. With their title hopes mercilessly crushed by a rampant France at Twickenham last week, Steve Borthwick’s team arrive in Dublin with two main aims: restoring pride and spoiling the Irish party.
England are not the only side with designs on raining on Ireland’s parade, of course, as France can still retain their title. To have any chance, however, Les Bleus must beat Wales in Paris (14:45 GMT) before Ireland and England take to the pitch on Lansdowne Road.
‘Super Saturday’ opens with Scotland hosting Italy at Murrayfield (12:30 GMT), which is live on BBC One.
‘Desperation is an illness’
Ireland have handled everything the Six Nations has thrown at them, from losing key players to injury to grinding out wins when they haven’t been at their best.
The most impressive Irish display came against France in Dublin in round two when Farrell’s men ran out 32-19 winners in an epic battle between the world’s top two sides.
Beating the holders felt big, but defeating England to deliver a Grand Slam in Dublin for the first time brings even greater pressure, and Farrell has called on his players to show calmness in the midst of the “circus”.
“All this stuff that you guys [the media] are going to be writing, it all becomes part of the circus, you know, managing all that,” he said.
“But in reality, anyone who has ever played in a big game, when you get over that white line all bets are off. It’s business time, isn’t it?
“All the emotion gets taken out after the first five minutes anyway and then you’ve got to be at your best.
“To me, desperation is an illness. You want to try and stay away from that.
“You can’t be accurate if you’re desperate. Being calm enough to be yourself and being controlled enough to be accurate when it matters is a temperament that we’re all chasing.”
England keen to make amends for Twickenham humiliation
Even without the chance of winning a title, this is an important game for an England side keen to extinguish the pain of their worst home defeat in 113 years of Test rugby against France last week.
For Borthwick, who replaced Eddie Jones as head coach in December, Saturday presents an opportunity to put England back on the right path in the last tournament outing before the World Cup.
It will be a big ask, though, considering Ireland have won their last 13 Tests at home.
“We know that after the bitter disappointment of the display against an exceptional France side, we will have to be much improved to meet the challenge of playing the side ranked number one in the world,” said Borthwick.
“However, I have witnessed an England squad determined to make amends for the defeat at Twickenham.
“I’m confident that the team announced will once again want to show the sort of resilience and attitude that brought us victory in Wales.”
What the pundits say
Former England scrum-half Danny Care on BBC Radio 5 Live’s Rugby Union Daily podcast: “You can make mistakes like decision-making or skill execution, which you can forgive, but the one non-negotiable in rugby and especially when you’re wearing an England shirt is you don’t give up.
“I don’t think you’ll see an attitude problem from England this weekend. The players and coaches won’t let it happen.
“I think Ireland will win but you’ll see a more combative performance from England.”
Former Ireland and British and Irish Lions wing Shane Horgan: “Ireland are uber-confident and are very relaxed at their ability to deliver a performance.
“That confidence has been built over a long period. They’ve won a tour in New Zealand, they’ve beaten all the southern hemisphere teams and against France, Ireland really dominated.
“They’re secure in their ability and they’re not looking over their shoulders.”
Sexton v Farrell
As ever, Ireland and England’s performance will be dictated by their fly-halves, around whom there has been a contrasting narrative in recent weeks.
This is being built up as Johnny Sexton’s big day. It is the Ireland captain’s last Six Nations game and he can secure his place in Irish sporting history by becoming the first skipper to win a Grand Slam in Dublin.
He also needs just one point to surpass predecessor Ronan O’Gara as the Six Nations’ all-time record scorer.
On the other hand, England fly-half Owen Farrell – the son of Ireland head coach Andy – is seeking redemption after being dropped for Marcus Smith in the France defeat.
Ireland: Keenan; Hansen, Henshaw, Aki, Lowe; Sexton (capt), Gibson-Park; Porter, Sheehan, Furlong; Baird, Ryan; O’Mahony, van der Flier, Doris.
Replacements: Herring, Healy, O’Toole, Treadwell, Conan, Murray, R Byrne, O’Brien.
England: Steward; Watson, Slade, Tuilagi, Arundell; Farrell (c), Van Poortvliet; Genge, George, Sinckler, Itoje, Ribbans, Ludlam, Willis, Dombrandt.
Replacements: Walker, M Vunipola, Cole, Isiekwe, B Curry, Mitchell, Smith, Marchant.