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Ireland v England: Stage set for a Grand Six Nations finale

Motivation for Super Saturday will come in many forms for Andy Farrell’s side

Ireland v England, Aviva Stadium, Saturday, 5pm – Live on Virgin Media One and ITV

Maybe some documentary producer planned it all. Ireland to host England in the final game of Super Saturday, on St Patrick’s Day weekend, seeking a Grand Slam coronation in Dublin for the first time 128 years, against England, in Johnny Sexton’s last Six Nations game. Are we missing anything? Oh yes, it’s the World Player of the Year’s 50th cap.

This was how it looked like it would pan out if all went to form from the outset and so it has come to pass, a script so ridiculously unique that, with Ireland 1-10 favourites (which must be a first as well), scaling the final hurdle after the 18-10 win in Cheltenham seems almost to be uncomfortably, nay unnervingly, perfect.

The pressure of delivering a Grand Slam? You could reach out and bite it on that taut evening in Cardiff in 2009 and no wonder, for no Irish team had won a Slam in 61 years. So tried and trusted were they in their methods under Joe Schmidt that it never felt like there was the same level of pressure at Twickenham in 2018. But that applies even more so with Andy Farrell’s team.

Some sides on a roll of 21 wins in 23 matches might become a tad over-confident, but Ireland’s rise to the top of the world rankings and the landmark wins among that run is partly based upon their humility.


“One of the biggest things for me is the humbleness of the players,” said attack coach Mike Catt, widening his eyes as to emphasise the point.

“It’s unbelievable. They are such hard workers, genuinely hard workers. All they want to do is please. Whether it’s uniting the nation or whether it’s their family, or themselves, or whatever, they work hard, are very diligent and it means a hell of a lot to them.”

They’ll also fully respect England, for England are as wounded as they’ve ever been coming to Dublin.

Thus far under the new Steve Borthwick regime, England have been like a team floundering around for a sense of identity. On foot of losing to Scotland they flipped from a Marcus Smith-Owen Farrell 10-12 axis to a Farrell-Ollie Lawrence combination for the wins over Italy and Wales by reverting to a very Borthwick-esque kicking game.

Whereupon, very surprisingly, he flipped again, restoring Smith with Lawrence and leaving Farrell on the bench while making Ellis Genge his captain. The fault lines ran way deeper than this axis but reuniting Farrell and Tuilagi with Henry Slade for the first time since the World Cup, and the trio who did serious damage in England’s win here four years ago, looks like a statement of intent.

The surprise this time is that the 20-year-old left wing Henry Arundell is being pitched into his fourth Test and first start at international level, and he is defensively very unproven, especially at this level.

Borthwick is a coach who bases much of his philosophy on statistics, employing a specialist supplier at Leicester. Like Eddie Jones, he believes that the team which kicks more invariably wins. In transforming a Leicester side into champions in two seasons, he took this to its extremes, and in this respect the performances against Italy and Wales were much more in keeping with his philosophy.

The sheer scale of last week’s record Twickenham defeat has distilled and clarified, and given England a sense of identity, for this week anyway. It’s a one-off game to restore credibility.

They will bring more line speed, intensity and physicality. Tuilagi, who has six wins in six games against Ireland, will run hard and powerfully, particularly at Sexton, and look to smash anything which comes near him. But Bundee Aki will relish this duel and if they even cancel each other out that is a win for Ireland.

England will play little or no rugby from halfway out off more than two phases and will look to target the Irish back three with a variety of kicks.

Good and all as Hugo Keenan is, as Freddie Steward demonstrated on the wing in the final round in the Stade de France last year, the 6′ 5″, 16st 12lbs fullback is as effective chasing bombs as he is receiving them.

Recall too, England were cast in the role of unlikely Grand Slam party spoilers a year ago as well after two wins over Italy and Wales, in between defeats by Scotland and Ireland at home, the latter by 32-15.

The game was more competitive and troublesome for France than the final 25-13 scoreline indicates, only Antoine Dupont’s typically opportunist try on the hour giving them breathing room.

But while England will be highly aroused, with a risk of being too much so, it’s not like Ireland are in deficit when it comes to motivation. There’s a fourth Grand Slam, the first in Lansdowne Road, thereby doing it in front of families and friends, which will mean a huge amount to them. There’s also doing it for Johnny, doing it for Josh, doing it for Garry and the other injured absentees, doing it for the home crowd, doing it for the country. Some will have been said, some won’t, but they’re all there.

The bottom line is that they’re the better team, way more evolved and layered and nuanced in attack especially, and with better players. While this will be a revealing test of Ryan Baird’s ability to physically compete at this level, his athleticism and skill set are not in doubt. There’s a new maturity to his game and, helpfully, he is surrounded by seven of the pack which started all three Tests in the epic series win over the All Blacks.

Presuming Dan Sheehan and Caelan Doris are fully up to speed, that gives Ireland a full complement of elusive and dynamic carrying. Tadhg Furlong’s performance on his return last week was equally timely and Jamison Gibson-Park looked like he’d never been away, while there’s still the insurance policy of Conor Murray on the bench.

Even losing Ringrose has been offset by the timely return of Robbie Henshaw, meaning it’s also the backline which saw out the Third Test in New Zealand.

England may well have their moments, may even trouble Ireland and gnaw at the home crowd for a while, but it’s hard not to envisage all of these factors and more ultimately telling over 80 minutes on what could be a truly memorable day.

Bring it on.


Hugo Keenan (Leinster); Mack Hansen (Connacht), Robbie Henshaw (Leinster, Bundee Aki (Connacht), James Lowe (Leinster); Johnny Sexton (Leinster, capt), Jamison Gibson-Park (Leinster); Andrew Porter (Leinster), Dan Sheehan (Leinster), Tadhg Furlong (Leinster); Ryan Baird (Leinster), James Ryan (Leinster); Peter O’Mahony (Munster), Josh van der Flier (Leinster), Caelan Doris (Leinster).

Replacements: Rob Herring (Ulster), Cian Healy (Leinster), Tom O’Toole (Ulster), Kieran Treadwell (Ulster), Jack Conan (Leinster), Conor Murray (Munster), Ross Byrne (Leinster), Jimmy O’Brien (Leinster).


Freddie Steward (Leicester); Anthony Watson (Leicester), Henry Slade (Exerer), Manu Tuilagi (Sale), Henry Arundell (London Irish); Owen Farrell (Saracens, capt), Jack van Poortvliet (Leicester); Ellis Genge (Bristol), Jamie George (Saracens), Kyle Sinckler (Bristol); Maro Itoje (Saracens), David Ribbans (Northampton); Lewis Ludlam (Northampton), Jack Willis (Toulouse), Alex Dombrandt (Harlequins).

Replacements: Jack Walker (Harlequins), Mako Vunipola (Saracens), Dan Cole (Leicester), Nick Isiekwe (Saracens), Ben Curry (Sale), Alex Mitchell (Northampton), Marcus Smith (Harlequins), Joe Marchant (Harlequins).

Referee: Jaco Peyper (South Africa)

Assistant Referees: Ben O’Keeffe (New Zealand), Pierre Brousset (France)

TMO: Marius Jonker (South Africa)

Overall head-to-head: Played 139. Ireland 51 wins. England 80 wins. 8 Draws.

Last five meetings – 2019, RWC warm-up: England 57 Ireland 15 (Twickenham). 2020, 6N: England 24 Ireland 14 (Twickenham); 2020 ANC: England 18 Ireland 7 (Twickenham); 2021 6N: Ireland 32 England 18 (Aviva Stadium); 2022 6N: England 18 Ireland 32 (Twickenham).

Five-game formguide – Ireland: Won 13-10 v Australia (home); Won 34-10 v Wales (away); Won 32-19 v France (home); Won 34-20 v Italy (away); Won 22-7 v Scotland (away).

England: Lost 13-27 v South Africa (home); Lost 23-29 v Scotland (home); Won 31-14 v Italy (home); Won 20-10 v Wales (away); Lost 10-53 v France (home).

Betting: 1-10 Ireland, 35-1 Draw, 13-2 England. Handicap odds (England +15 pts), Evens Ireland, 16/1 Draw, Evens England.

Forecast: Ireland to win.

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times