Saturday, December 2, 2023

Ireland keen to seal first Six Nations Grand Slam in Dublin

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Ireland has been talking up England all week.

The Irish have restyled their Six Nations rugby finale on Saturday into a Grand Slam party after tearing through Wales, France, Italy and Scotland.

Anticipation is heavy of Ireland achieving crowning glory at a sold-out Lansdowne Road. The English have played their part by coming with reputations ravaged by a 53-10 mauling from France at Twickenham just a week ago.

Ireland’s protagonists don’t believe it though. Flanker Peter O’Mahony says he isn’t buying talk of a comfortable win. Cian Healy says its silly to think they can do what France did. Jack Conan says there’s no easy games with England. Captain Jonathan Sexton calls England dangerous. Coach Andy Farrell adds England has a perfect opportunity to spoil the party.

But who are they kidding?

It’s hard to see Ireland wasting an opportunity four years in the making.

Farrell has built on predecessor Joe Schmidt’s success by developing depth and creativity, playing more up-tempo and heads up. Ever since their first series win in New Zealand last July, the Irish have been ranked No. 1 and embraced the pressure to hold it. They haven’t lost, their winning streak is up to nine tests. In the autumn, Ireland found ways to prevail. In this championship they have shown a ruthless efficiency.

Consider the reactions of opposing coaches. Warren Gatland, whose Wales was blitzed in the first half, said, “Their game management was excellent.” After France lost for the first time in two years, Fabien Galthie said, “They play the rugby that people talk about.” Italy pushed Ireland all the way but Kieran Crowley said, “We couldn’t see any weaknesses.” And when Scotland was plucked in the second half, Gregor Townsend said, “They showed what a quality side they are.”

Grand Slam chances hardly get better than this with home advantage. A huge motivating factor is to be the first Ireland team to secure a Grand Slam at Lansdowne Road.

The first Irish Slam in 1948 was completed in Belfast, 2009′s in Cardiff, and 2018′s in London.

Neither has Ireland won the title in the Six Nations era at home, as it goes for its fifth title in this century.

With all that is at stake, and all of it wrapped up on St. Patrick’s weekend, Ireland has been at pains to say it must play the game and not the occasion. Healy says there’s no danger of that with Sexton around.

“Johnny has his own standards and all of us strive to get to those standards, and we get absolutely torn into when we don’t. But we try,” Healy says.

The match marks the 60th and last Six Nations appearance for Sexton (and probably Healy), who is retiring after the Rugby World Cup this year.

Sexton is certain to receive an extra big cheer after his first points in the match, which will make him the highest point-scorer in championship history, breaking a tie with predecessor Ronan O’Gara.

“It’s more about the team this week,” Sexton says. “I’d never be able to live with myself if you don’t turn up and play well. You take the emotion out of it, it’s going to be emotional anyway. You’re playing England at home with something on the line, so it’s always what you’ve wanted to do and where you wanted to be.”

Ireland lost to injury defense ringmaster Garry Ringrose and Lions lock Iain Henderson, and replaced them with Lions center Robbie Henshaw and Ryan Baird. First-choice scrumhalf Jamison Gibson-Park is also back.

England’s injuries were more of a blow, in losing its best back (Ollie Lawrence) and best forward (Ollie Chessum).

To try and repair England’s myriad problems in just a week, Owen Farrell, Manu Tuilagi and Henry Slade are at 10-12-13 for the first time since 2019. But it won’t matter if the pack doesn’t toughen up.

“I don’t think they’ll take us lightly, they’ll give us the respect we deserve even off the back of the 50 points,” England prop Ellis Genge says. “Ireland have changed a lot in terms of their psyche. They used to love being an underdog team and now they’re No. 1 in the world. They’ve got to back that up and I think they’re a brilliant team. Now we’re the underdogs.” ___


Ireland: Hugo Keenan, Mack Hansen, Robbie Henshaw, Bundee Aki, James Lowe, Jonathan Sexton (captain), Jamison Gibson-Park; Caelan Doris, Josh van der Flier, Peter O’Mahony, James Ryan, Ryan Baird, Tadhg Furlong, Dan Sheehan, Andrew Porter. Reserves: Rob Herring, Cian Healy, Tom O’Toole, Kieran Treadwell, Jack Conan, Conor Murray, Ross Byrne, Jimmy O’Brien.

England: Freddie Steward, Anthony Watson, Henry Slade, Manu Tuilagi, Henry Arundell, Owen Farrell (captain), Jack van Poortvliet; Alex Dombrandt, Jack Willis, Lewis Ludlam, David Ribbans, Maro Itoje, Kyle Sinckler, Jamie George, Ellis Genge. Reserves: Jack Walker, Mako Vunipola, Dan Cole, Nick Isiekwe, Ben Curry, Alex Mitchell, Marcus Smith, Joe Marchant.


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