DUBLIN: Eddie Jones’s England head to Dublin for their final match of the 2017 Six Nations just eight 80 minutes away from rewriting the record books.
Victory for England, already crowned Six Nations champions, over Ireland at Lansdowne Road on Saturday would see them set a new record of 19 consecutive Test wins by a leading rugby union nation.
It would also mean they become the first side in the Six Nations era to complete back-to-back Grand Slams and just the sixth in the long history of the Championship.
Yet England were some away short of top form in the opening rounds of this Six Nations although, like many good sides, they kept winning when below their best.
So when former Ireland centre Gordon D’Arcy, in an Irish Times column, published between the third and fourth rounds, said “England look a team under ever-increasing strain,” it was not a fanciful notion.
But the shackles were thrown off in spectacular style during last week’s 61-21, seven-try rout of Scotland at Twickenham featuring a hat-trick from Jonathan Joseph.
That win came just a day after Ireland’s title hopes were dealt a hammer blow by a 22-9 loss to Wales in Cardiff where they couldn’t even manage one try, let alone seven.
In politics, many an Englishman has been stumped by the ‘Irish question’ but in rugby terms it’s the hosts who face plenty of pre-match problems this week.
For all the criticism of Scotland’s defence, some of England’s attacking play was sublime. Now the question being asked of Jones’ men is did they hit peak form one week too early?
“Most teams in the Six Nations have one big performance, so we are anticipating them to be at their best on Saturday,” the England coach said when asked Thursday about Ireland.
But Jones insisted England’s “big performance” had not come and gone. “When I said ‘most teams’ we are not ‘most teams’,” he explained.
That might sound like typical English ‘arrogance’ coming from an Australian were it not for the fact England have won 18 Tests in a row.
Jones, benefitting from England’s large playing base and years of good youth development, has created a bench of replacements or “finishers” as he calls them who would start in many another side.
Such is England’s strength in depth that experienced scrum-half Danny Care finds himself playing second fiddle to Ben Youngs and impressive hooker Jamie George must wait his turn behind England captain Dylan Hartley.
“You look around the changing room and there are a lot of world-class players in a lot of positions,” said Care.
“George Ford (fly-half) and Owen Farrell (inside centre) as a combination seems to be working brilliantly.
“And you look at (flanker) Maro Itoje – he’s still only 22 but plays like he’s a 100-cap veteran.”
Powerhouse No 8 Billy Vunipola and wing Anthony Watson, who both scored tries off the bench last week, are now in the starting side, with left wing Elliot Daly cleared to play following a suspected concussion.
Ireland, who ended the All Blacks’ 18-match winning run with a 40-29 success in Chicago in November, suffered a setback when scrum-half Conor Murray was ruled out Thursday with a shoulder injury sustained against Wales.
The Irish will certainly need their forwards and a defence coached by Andy Farrell – Owen’s father – to front up if they are to win this weekend.
But Ireland coach Joe Schmidt took exception to Jones’s labelling his team’s play as “kick and clap“, with high ‘bombs’ from fly-half Jonathan Sexton their main weapon.
“I think last year he might have said that we kicked 60 percent of the ball that we had,” the New Zealander said. “And when it was mentioned to him that England kicked the ball more than we did it probably wasn’t convenient at the time.
“So we’ll do what we try to do best, and I know Eddie will have England really well-prepared to do what they do best, which is apply a heck of a lot of pressure.”