Dublin set to celebrate as Ireland target Grand Slam against reeling England
Six Nations organisers have long revelled in promoting “Super Saturday” but the finale of this year’s championship has surpassed their wildest dreams as Ireland face England seeking a grand slam that threatens to test even Dublin’s party capacity.
It would be Ireland’s fourth clean sweep but first achieved in Dublin, following Twickenham (2018), Cardiff (2009) and Belfast (1948).
Throw in the fact that the final match is against England, the team they most love to beat, and that it is on St Patrick’s Day (March 17) weekend, then Ireland fans really don’t know what to do with themselves as they count the hours.
Ireland lead the standings on 19 points, with France, the only team who can catch them, on 15. France host Wales a few hours earlier in the second game of the day and need to win to join Ireland on 19 or claim a bonus point to edge ahead on 20. Ireland currently enjoy a points difference advantage of 20.
However, such has been Ireland’s advance in the last few years that now, as the undisputed world number one team, merely winning a 15th title but missing a grand slam would be viewed a massive failure.
That, however, is a scenario that looks unlikely as they go into Saturday’s 1700GMT game on the back of four hugely impressive performances and against an England team reeling from last weekend’s record 53-10 mauling by France.
Ireland’s victory over Scotland last week really cemented them, and coach Andy Farrell, as a team with total faith in what they are doing. They held off a strong Scottish first-half assault and overcame a succession of injuries that might have derailed many a team to finish completely in control.
It set up the grand slam decider that will be the highlight of a celebratory weekend expected to attract around 200,000 visitors from around the world, a fair few of them nervous England fans, with even the most extortionate hotel rooms long booked out.
As well as the prospect of a first Dublin grand slam, it would also be the first time Ireland have clinched the Six Nations title in front of their own fans since 1985, having secured their four since in Cardiff, Paris, Edinburgh and London.
“That’s the bit that we spoke about from the start and said ‘imagine this happening, imagine having a shot at it at home in front of your family and friends’,” captain Johnny Sexton said on Wednesday.
Sexton also warned, however, that England are unlikely to fold as meekly as they did against France. Another loss would mean a third successive campaign of two wins and three defeats and there has been much talk this week of regaining pride.
“We know the threat that is coming,” Sexton said. “They didn’t show that last week but that can happen to teams.”
France were superb in every aspect at Twickenham, a timely boost in World Cup year after they had been below par in their opening games, and will expect to finish on a high against Wales.
A repeat of that almost-perfect performance is unlikely but they look to have far too much in the locker for a Wales team struggling for any sort of identity under Warren Gatland.
Wales at least showed good fortitude to overcome Italy last week when many were predicting defeat but it would be a huge surprise if they were to end a run of four successive losses at the hands of the buoyant defending champions.
Scotland sit alongside England on 10 points and get Saturday’s action underway against Italy in Edinburgh (1230).
They have played some of their best rugby for years in this championship but will be significantly hampered by the absence of injured Stuart Hogg and Finn Russell, the flyhalf who has been at the heart of much of their enterprising attacks.
Italy occupy their usual position at the foot of the table with a solitary bonus point, but could justifiably claim they have played quite well, sometimes very well, in all four of their defeats.
A failure to turn opportunity into points has cost them dear, however, and an 18th wooden spoon in 23 tournaments looks on the cards.
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