Ireland are aiming to complete the Grand Slam when they host England in the climax to the Guinness Six Nations at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday.
As the world’s number one-ranked side they are expected to sweep aside Steve Borthwick’s men, who collapsed to a record home defeat to France in round four.
While Ireland are playing for glory, England are looking to restore reputations in the wake of their troubling 53-10 rout at Twickenham.
Here, we examine the rivals’ strengths and weaknesses.
A golden era of Irish rugby has produced a host of outstanding internationals, spearheaded by reigning world player of the year Josh van der Flier. Caelan Doris, Tadhg Furlong, James Ryan, Dan Sheehan and Hugo Keenan would also be at home in a world XV, while veteran Johnny Sexton, 37, is showing why he is among the finest fly-halves seen in the professional era.
England, meanwhile, would struggle to contribute a single player to a composite Six Nations side such has been the collapse in form that set in during the latter stages of the Eddie Jones era. Ellis Genge has been an indefatigable carrier, while rookies Ollie Chessum and Ollie Lawrence have impressed, but even that trio were steamrollered by the French juggernaut.
Another area where Ireland are currently excelling, as demonstrated by the chaos at Murrayfield where a series of injuries meant flanker Van der Flier was throwing into the line-out while prop Cian Healy was forced to scrummage at hooker. Veteran half-back Sexton and Conor Murray were outstanding amid the carnage, while replacement number nine Jamison Gibson-Park brought the extra spark that was needed.
England’s difficulties have made life hard for Owen Farrell and Genge, the two players placed in charge during this Six Nations, and they are also missing the influence of Courtney Lawes. Borthwick is heavily reliant on this trio, with the likes of club captains Alex Dombrandt and Lewis Ludlam yet to make their presence felt in the leadership stakes.
Borthwick was given a hospital pass by his predecessor Jones, inheriting a morale-depleted team who were struggling to implement a muddled gameplan. Across the opening three rounds, steady progress was made in some of the basics such as the set-piece, but that came to a shuddering halt against France. Borthwick has pinned his hat on England showing fight whatever the circumstances, but even that was missing on the penultimate weekend. Their attack is a mess and they are leaking tries at a rate of knots, contributing to an overall lack of tactical cohesion.
Tactical cohesion is something Ireland have in spades, however. The green machine is relentlessly efficient with well-drilled players in full command of their roles. Underpinning much of their success is ruck speed and overall breakdown accuracy which, when combined with their world-leading conditioning, enables them to run opponents off their feet.
In normal circumstances, all-conquering Ireland would be expected to show their customary ruthlessness and dispatch the underdogs, but with the scene set for one of the great days in their 148-year history, could the pressure get to them? They are gunning for a fourth Grand Slam but their first to be clinched in Dublin, while the match’s scheduling on St Patrick’s weekend adds to the expectation.
England are an extraordinary 7/1 to upstage the Irish on their big day and with no one giving them a hope, they can take what is being viewed in their camp as a “free swing”. Several of Borthwick’s team are playing for their Test futures, adding to their motivation.
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