When is a championship not a championship? The question makes no sense, apart from in the Six Nations when a Grand Slam is on the line on the final weekend. England have that opportunity when they travel to Dublin for Saturday’s tournament finale, as a victory over Ireland will secure them a second consecutive clean sweep. As Eddie Jones put it, “greatness” awaits.
But England have been here before, and the last time they were, they choked. They took to the Aviva Stadium turf knowing victory would not only secure them the 2011 Grand Slam, but emulate the famous success that the then head coach, Martin Johnson, secured eight years prior when he captained the soon-to-be world champions to Grand Slam success in Dublin in 2003.
On that occasion, England were sent back across the Irish Sea with their tail between their legs and a 24-8 defeat leaving them deflated and in no mood for celebration, even though they were crowned Six Nations champions. The below-par World Cup performance and subsequent sacking of Johnson can easily be traced back to that harrowing loss.
Among the replacements that day, as he will be again this Saturday, was scrum-half Danny Care. The Harlequins No 9 will not be the only one who runs out in Dublin that will remember what it was like to suffer the hurt of seeing a Grand Slam slip through their fingers, as Dan Cole, James Haskell, Tom Wood, Ben Youngs and captain Dylan Hartley know only too well. But that defeat has been brought up in camp this week, with the senior players keen to prepare the likes of Maro Itoje and Elliot Daly for what will face them on Saturday evening on their first international trip to the Irish capital.
“A big thing for them this week will be to spoil the party and finish their campaign on a high,” Care said. “To us, to get our game on the park, if we do that and we start anywhere like we did [last] weekend, we give ourselves every chance.”
Jones’s side do have everything in their favour. The title is already in the bag thanks to England’s most devastating performance in this year’s tournament in the 61-21 victory over Scotland last weekend, and an 18-Test winning streak shows no signs of stopping given that Jones is yet to taste anything other than victory with England.
But just like the parallels to 2011, this match is remarkably similar to Ireland’s autumn international against New Zealand last October. The All Blacks travelled to Chicago for what was expected to be a 19th Test victory in a row, were caught cold by a determined Irish side, and saw their world record run ended in a 40-29 defeat. England have that same chance, to claim the world record as their own, but that will only give Ireland more fuel to stop them with.
“We won’t take anything for granted this week and we know how good Ireland are and how good they can be in one game,” Care adds. “You saw them blow New Zealand off the park - they have some world class players and it is a very tough place to play. They don't like losing at home and they don't lose many.
“So it’s up to us to have a big start. You’ve seen with this team over the last couple of years, we’ve been down in big games and managed to find a way to get the win – out in Australia, [we] turned round a couple of games there, France this Six Nations. We’ve faced all sorts of different obstacles and a measure of the team is we’re dealing with all the situations quite well. It seems to be going all right at the moment.”
But for Care and Youngs, the man who will start at scrum-half this weekend, there will be a chance to impress. That’s because Conor Murray will not be standing opposite them, the man currently favourite for the British and Irish Lions Test spot ruled out of the clash due to the ‘stinger’ injury suffered in last Friday’s defeat by Wales. In comes replacement Kieran Marmion, the Connacht scrum-half who doesn’t quite possess the same talent as Murray, especially when it comes to the side’s ability to pressure an opponent with the boot.
Six Nations team of the weekend - round four
Six Nations team of the weekend - round four
1/15 15. Leigh Halfpenny (Wales)
The full-back flourished in bringing George North into the game as he repeatedly joined the back line to give Wales an extra man in attack. He tackled well, with a memorable stop on Rob Kearney halting an Irish attack in full flow. Has put himself back into the running for the Lions berth.
2/15 14. George North (Wales)
Back to his devastating best with two tries this week. His first was a brutal display of power as he carried both Simon Zebo and Keith Earls over the try line to score, while his second was the result of a great drive from the Welsh pack. A mazy run towards the end of the victory over Ireland triggered one last attack as his side searched in vain for the bonus point.
3/15 13. Jonathan Joseph (England)
A brilliant performance provided a timely reminder of what he is capable of. Three tries, each of differing styles, paved the way for England’s stunning 61-21 victory over Scotland. The first try saw Joseph display his pace and power, the second one came from dazzling footwork and the third saw him cut a lovely inside line to break cleanly from short range.
4/15 12. Owen Farrell (England)
After his horror show against Italy, Farrell was back to his best again to convert all but one of his kicks at goal – the one he missed was from his own half – and he was much smarter with his kicking to touch following the errors that littered his display a fortnight ago. Brought Joseph into the attack superbly, and finished the game at 10 once more.
5/15 11. Virimi Vakatawa (France)
A great week for the French wing as he scored a devastating try that put Italy out of the game and racked up more metres than anyone else this week, making an average of more than 10m per break. He beat eight defenders and made four clean breaks, and provided a display that proved just what a dangerous open-field runner he can be.
6/15 10. George Ford (England)
Ford was able to take the fight to Scotland with the pack providing him with front-foot ball to work with. The fly-half linked up superbly with Farrell outside him, and also brought his three-quarters into the game with devastating results.
7/15 9. Rhys Webb (Wales)
A strong performance from Webb saw him create the first try for North with a smart supporting run to take an offload from Scott Williams and release a beautiful wide pass for Halfpenny to run on to. He was alert in defence and got the better of Ireland scrum-half Conor Murray in their battle for the Lions No 9 shirt.
8/15 1. Rob Evans (Wales)
A strong performance from the loosehead against an Irish scrum that until now had gotten the better of all its opponents. Carried multiple times, albeit with little success, but that took its toll on the Irish defence as it tired.
9/15 2. Guilhem Guirado (France)
The standout hooker this week as the French captain led by example, making an impressive 31 metres with the ball in hand and 11 tackles in defence, not to mention sealing a turnover in the process.
10/15 3. Rabah Slimani (France)
Joins his skipper in the front row after displacing Uini Atonio in the side and delivering much better performances. An impressive showing in the loose.
11/15 4. Joe Launchbury (England)
A candidate for player of the tournament. Launchbury has excelled on his return to the Test fold, and he once again led by example as he made a phenomenal 22 tackles against Scotland, as well as enjoying success with the ball in hand.
12/15 5. Alun Wyn Jones (Wales)
Return to form this week as he put his body on the line, making 18 tackles and 14 carries. He also disrupted the Irish lineout, stealing one throw on his own 5m line, but his best performance came in terms of his decision-making as he got all the big calls right.
13/15 6. Sam Warburton (Wales)
A brilliant performance in defence saw Warburton set the tone for Wales’s physical dominance over Ireland. He made more tackles than anyone else on the pitch in Cardiff, and he looks to be suited to not having the burden of the captaincy hanging over him.
14/15 7. Kevin Gourdon (France)
France have found their natural replacement for Thierry Dusautoir as Gourdon once again displayed his talents in the win over Italy. He carried well for more than 50 metres, and did his job in defence to slow down the Italian attack at the breakdown.
15/15 8. Nathan Hughes (England)
Scotland made the mistake of not double-marking him, and he ran riot as a result. The Wasps No 8 appeared to send out a message that the returning Billy Vunipola would not be taking his shirt easily, and made an impressive 74 metres from 11 carries.
“We know Ireland come with a very good kicking game,” acknowledges Care. “Conor Murray’s probably one of the best in the world at box-kicking and Johnny Sexton is an unbelievable kicker as well so we know they like to test you in the air and it’s something the back three have talked about.
“[Mike] Brown I think is one of the best in the world at taking those high balls, and he’s been leading the way with trying to help the lads out there this week.”
Not one of the England back-three that starts on Saturday knows what it feels like to lose a Grand Slam on the final weekend, but if the likes of Care and Youngs don’t conquer their 2011 demons, they’ll understand that pain soon enough.Reuse content