Stage set for Grand Slam decider
March 17, 2011
Can Martin Johnson's England make it a clean sweep in this year's Six Nations with victory over Ireland in Dublin? © PA Photos
England tackle Ireland on Saturday in the hope of securing the Six Nations title and the highly-prized Grand Slam for the first time since 2003.
Martin Johnson's side enter the clash with significant momentum having seen off the challenge of a resurgent Scotland at Twickenham last weekend - their fourth successive victory in this year's campaign. Earlier victories over Wales, Italy and France put them on course for glory and a rare win over the Irish in Dublin would see them complete their 13th Championship clean sweep. However, a narrow defeat may still be enough for the Six Nations crown due to their superior points difference. Title rivals Wales must not only hope their celtic rivals do them a favour at Lansdowne Road but also put 40+ points on France in Paris.
Ireland will enter the clash in bullish mood despite a mixed season that has included unconvincing victories over Italy and Scotland and error-laden defeats at the hands of France and Wales. The history books make happy reading with Ireland victories in six of their last eight encounters while England cannot boast a victory in the Irish capital since the day they wrapped up the Grand Slam in 2003 when a certain Martin Johnson was their captain.
Reduced to Six Nations also-rans, Ireland will relish the opportunity to derail England's quest for glory but to do so they must conjure the kind of performance that has evaded their predecessors in this year's Championship. And they will not find things easy against an England side brimming with confidence and sensing something special.
Ireland - Player to Watch: Jonathan Sexton has beaten Ronan O'Gara to the Ireland No.10 shirt despite failing to impress as a replacement against Wales last weekend. Can he re-discover the form that helped put England to the sword 12 months ago? Or will he be making way for O'Gara sooner than he would have hoped?
Ireland - Team News: In addition to Sexton's return to the starting XV, Keith Earls moves to fullback in place of Luke Fitzgerald who misses out on the 22 altogether. There is also a recall for Ulster wing Andrew Trimble who fills the spot vacated by Earls. Leinster scrum-half Eoin Reddan has been named in the starting line-up despite suffering a concussion in the opening seconds last weekend, with Peter Stringer on the bench.
England - Player to Watch: Matt Banahan will make his only second Test start at outside centre in place of the injured Mike Tindall - can the 6ft 7in and 18st giant make an impression on Ireland's midfield and turn the tide in the favour of his side?
England - Team News: Nick Easter will captain the side in the absence of Tindall who picked up an ankle ligament strain in the victory over the Scots. Banahan's promotion from the replacements is the only change to the side that took to the field at Twickenham last time out. Saracens wing David Strettle, whose last Test appearance for England came against New Zealand on the 2008 summer tour, will fill the vacant back's position on the bench.
Key Battle: Both sides may come wanting to play expansive rugby but that can only be done with the ball. As a result expect a fierce contest at the breakdown especially between the back-rows that boast many of the in-form players in this year's Championship. Ireland's David Wallace, Sean O'Brien and Jamie Heaslip go up against England's Tom Wood, James Haskell and Nick Easter.
Trivia: Ireland captain Brian O'Driscoll was also skipper the day England wrapped up the Grand Slam in Dublin in 2003 - scrum-half Peter Stringer, fly-half Ronan O'Gara and lock Paul O'Connell are also survivors from that day. O'Driscoll is also looking to eclipse Scotland's Ian Smith as the Championship's all-time leading try-scorer having equalled his mark of 24 with his score against Wales.
Stats: England manager Martin Johnson appears to have a very settled group of players having used just 17 different players in his starting XVs during this year's Championship.
"Contrary to popular belief we never banned anything in this squad, certainly not talking about Grand Slams. We couldn't win the Grand Slam in any other game, but we can in this one." - England boss Martin Johnson has the big prize in his sights.
"They [England] will have some nerves like you would for any Grand Slam game and it's our job to try to bring those nerves out and compound them." - Ireland skipper Brian O'Driscoll looks for England's weak point.
The Odds: Fancy Ireland to upset the formbook and extend their Dublin dominance? Bet365 are offering what appears to be a quite generous 7-4 for the hosts to come out on top.
Fantasy: England winger Chris Ashton remains two tries short of the Championship single season record of 8 jointly held by held by England's Cyril Lowe (1914) and Scotland's Ian Smith (1925). If you fancy him to re-write the record books then he needs to be in your ESPNscrum Fantasy Rugby Game team.
Prediction: Expect Ireland to raise their game but come up short against an increasingly assured England side that knows how to slug it out and turn on the style.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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