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