History boys England aim for St Patrick's Six Nations Slam party

Julian GUYER
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England's centre Owen Farrell (R) watches fly-half George Ford during a team training session at Pennyhill Park in Bagshot, on March 16, 2017

Perhaps only England coach Eddie Jones could arrive for a match in Dublin on St Patrick's weekend and talk about how the Irish love to "spoil a party" rather than give one.

But, in rugby union terms at least, the Australian has a point.

England face Ireland in the final match of the 2017 Six Nations at Dublin's Lansdowne Road on Saturday knowing a win would see them set a new record of 19 consecutive Test wins by a leading nation.

It would also mean they become the first side in the Six Nations era to complete back-to-back Grand Slams.

They come into the game having hammered Scotland 61-21 at Twickenham last week to retain the Six Nations title.

Jones, yet to lose a match in charge of England, has arguably selected his strongest side of the tournament, with powerhouse back-row Billy Vunipola starting at No 8 and Anthony Watson, who scored a superb try off the bench against Scotland, on the wing.

By contrast Ireland, whose title hopes evaporated with a 22-9 loss to Wales in Cardiff last week, must do without injured scrum-half Conor Murray, a pivotal figure.

And yet Jones said the fact England had already secured the title "makes us vulnerable".

"Ireland are in a very favourable position psychologically. They have nothing to fear."

That's not quite accurate as defeat for Ireland could see them lose a coveted place in the top four of the world rankings and preferential seeding come May's draw for the 2019 World Cup in Japan.

Moreover, it was Ireland who confounded plenty of pundits by beating New Zealand 40-29 in Chicago in November to end the world champions' 18-match winning streak.

They would love to be the team that similarly stop England in their tracks.

"Any team can be beaten on their day," said Ireland coach Joe Schmidt, citing several recent sporting thrillers, including Barcelona's astounding comeback to hammer Paris Saint Germain 6-1 in football's Champions League.

"Who would have picked us to win in Chicago at 13/1 in a two-horse race? That's what people love about sport.

"Can we (win)? We have to believe we can," said Schmidt, a Kiwi who masterminded that surprise win over his own country.

"We have to go out there with that absolute belief that we can," added Schmidt, who nevertheless ruefully observed that England "are getting guys back and we're bleeding a few guys that offer experience and quality, particularly in Conor".

- Second up for grabs -

Jones, while wary of Ireland -- even if he did disparagingly suggest they favoured a "kick and clap game" of aerial threat -- believes England are a better side than the one that won a Grand Slam in his first season in charge.

"We're more adaptive, more resilient and more self-reliant," he said. "They're three key characteristics going forward as a team."

Wales and Scotland could yet finish second if they win their concluding matches against France and Italy respectively and other results go their way.

Saturday's fixtures also offer players from the four Home Unions of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales the chance to press their claim for places in the British and Irish Lions squad that will tour New Zealand later this year.

"I've mentioned it before, but not one player has mentioned the Lions to each other," Wales's Sam Warburton, the combined side's victorious captain during their 2013 series triumph in Australia, said this week.

Frankly, the odds on that being completely true are rather longer than 13/1.