Six weeks ago, before the Six Nations began, Eddie Jones was asked if he had one eye on a Grand Slam shootout against Ireland. He immediately dismissed the question, insisting that he would not look beyond the curtain-raising encounter against France because Dublin was a long way off.
With each week came the change of focus. First Wales, then Italy – that proved a tricky one – before Scotland were batted aside in the most brutal of fashions. And now we’re here, in Dublin, where England have the chance to win the Grand Slam for the second year running. The only surprise is that Ireland do not.
Jones may have exaggerated this week when he said "I've read all your predictions and Ireland were favourites”, but he is right in noting that they were expected to at least be challenging for the title, if not the Grand Slam. But the opening weekend defeat by Scotland ended the Slam hopes early, and last Friday’s loss to Wales confirmed the end of their title challenge once England had seen off the Scots.
But Ireland are not a team in crisis. Nor are they a team that cannot realistically beat England on Saturday, and nor will they conform to Jones’s claim that they have “no fear of failure”. Lose to England on any weekend and there will be a sense of failure, but lose to them on the festival that is St Patrick’s Day weekend, and they don’t come much more dispiriting than that. Throw in the added caveat that, should England win on Saturday, the players will have to watch Dylan Hartley lift the Six Nations trophy, the Triple Crown and the Millennium Trophy – the under-the-radar trophy competed for by Ireland and England – then you have the perfect cocktail for an Irish hangover.
“I think we take too much pride in our performance to worry (about that),” said Ireland captain Rory Best on the eve of the match. “We're well aware of what England are going for tomorrow, but for us I suppose it's St Paddy's weekend, we're at home and we have a very proud record at home as well, and we take huge confidence from that.
“So we have focused on how to beat England, we haven't focused on the reasons why we'll beat them.
“We'll beat England because we're pulling on a green jersey, because we're at home and we expect probably a better, more consistent performance over the 80 minutes than we've delivered so far in this championship.”
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.
The hangovers of those watching inside the Aviva Stadium may not be as bad as feared, given many chose not to risk the extreme weather the battered Dublin on Friday night, but the rain is due to clear by the time kick-off comes about. That should encourage both teams to play exciting rugby, with Ireland vs England encounters rarely failing to live up to the pre-match hype that surrounds them.
Yet the conditions could play a massive part in the outcome of the match. England are expecting plenty of towering kicks from Irish fly-half Jonathan Sexton, and with the wind still set to be battering the Irish capital, both Mike Brown and his opposite full-back, Jared Payne, could face a tricky time under the high ball. It could come down to the smallest of influences that decides the match, and Best is the first to admit that those influences aren’t always physical in a game of this magnitude.
"Look, I think big games always require a massive physical effort obviously, but it requires real, real mental strength because it's going to come down to fine margins,” the Ireland captain said. “A lot of it is the team which makes the fewest mistakes will win. The team that have the mental fortitude and courage to go out and take those opportunities when they are there will also win so from that side of things it does take a massive one.
“They're playing for a Grand Slam, but we've got a home record we want to keep intact. We're back in front of our home fans. There has been a lot made about this game so there is pressure on from that side for us. Ultimately we want to finish with a massive result. I don't think that their want is any more than ours."
The key for Ireland, as Sexton put it on Thursday, is to produce those massive results on a consistent basis. If Ireland can find a way to spoil the party and leave the rugby world stunned once again, they can genuinely start to build around a side that can rival the best on the world. And England? They would be back to the drawing board, and that’s not a place where Eddie Jones wants to be come Saturday night.Reuse content