England stand on the verge of Six Nations history in Dublin this Saturday, as they face Ireland, looking to claim back-to-back Grand Slams.
Few would have predicted the English to be in this position following their World Cup exit in 2015, but under the tutelage of Eddie Jones and a new coaching team they have grown into a dangerous animal that also is one victory away from a Tier 1 record of 19 successive wins.
Reaching that number at the Aviva Stadium will be no mean feat, however, especially against an Ireland side hurting after losing to Wales.
Yes they are missing scrum-half Conor Murray and full-back Rob Kearney due to injury, but write off Joe Schmidt’s charges at your peril as whether they deny it or not, they will be determined to spoil the English party on Saturday.
England meanwhile will be desperate to avoid another 2001 scenario when they lifted the Six Nations silverware at Lansdowne Road but missed out on the Grand Slam after a 20-14 defeat.
They look the real deal at the moment and slack Scottish midfield defence or not, the English threw down a marker at Twickenham last week. The George Ford-Owen Farrell partnership came of age while Jonathan Joseph looked almost embarrassed at how easily he claimed a hat-trick.
In Dublin they have the boost of naming Billy Vunipola in their starting XV for the first time this year while from 1 to 23 it is fair to say that none of their players are struggling for form.
That is where England have the edge as confidence in their game appears sky high.
For Ireland they enter on the back of that poor performance in Cardiff, which was a game not dissimilar to this as now it will be them who are under pressure to shine after a loss.
If they are to hit back and end on a high they must concentrate their frustrations on upsetting the English fluidity whilst imposing their own high-paced physical style on their rival. Keeping their discipline in check is also vital.
England though should possess a touch more in their arsenal and even in what promises to be a hostile environment, it’s looking like being more 2003 than 2001 for this Six Nations finale. That would mean all smiles with the silverware, something Ireland will be eager to avoid.
Players to Watch
For Ireland: For several of their players this fixture also acts as one last chance to push their name forward for British and Irish Lions selection. One of those is experienced number eight Jamie Heaslip, who at the moment is looking like missing out to his opposite number on Saturday and possibly Taulupe Faletau. He has been solid enough this year and while Lions talk will be nowhere near his thought process in this game, for Ireland’s sake they need a titanic performance from Heaslip and his hulking back-row colleagues CJ Stander and Sean O’Brien.
For England: Speaking of Lions selection, one player who is banging on the door has to be Joe Launchbury. The second-row has been excellent alongside Courtney Lawes in this Six Nations and will want another big game in Dublin to ensure he makes the plane to New Zealand. Anthony Watson meanwhile was superb off the bench last week against Scotland and is deserving of a start. He could cause Ireland plenty of issues.
Head-to-head: Long-time rivals up front, respective captains Rory Best and Dylan Hartley square off once again this weekend in what should be a fascinating tussle. Tempers could boil over between these two packs and it will be interesting to see how the two hookers approach the needle in the game. Throw in that the duo have had previous clashes and it promises to be a tough one for referee Jérôme Garcès to control.
2016: England won 21-10 in London
2015: England won 21-13 in London
2015: Ireland won 19-9 in Dublin
2014: England won 13-10 in London
2013: England won 12-6 in Dublin
2012: England won 30-9 in London
2011: England won 20-9 in Dublin
2011: Ireland won 24-8 in Dublin
2010: Ireland won 20-16 in London
2009: Ireland won 14-13 in Dublin
Prediction: Try as they no doubt will, it’s going to be difficult for Ireland to stop this English machine. England to win by five.
Ireland: 15 Jared Payne, 14 Keith Earls, 13 Garry Ringrose, 12 Robbie Henshaw, 11 Simon Zebo, 10 Johnny Sexton, 9 Kieran Marmion, 8 Jamie Heaslip, 7 Sean O’Brien, 6 CJ Stander, 5 Iain Henderson, 4 Donnacha Ryan, 3 Tadgh Furlong, 2 Rory Best (c), 1 Jack McGrath
Replacements: 16 Niall Scannell, 17 Cian Healy, 18 John Ryan, 19 Devin Toner, 20 Peter O’Mahony, 21 Luke McGrath, 22 Paddy Jackson, 23 Andrew Conway
England: 15 Mike Brown, 14 Anthony Watson, 13 Jonathan Joseph, 12 Owen Farrell, 11 Elliot Daly, 10 George Ford, 9 Ben Youngs, 8 Billy Vunipola, 7 James Haskell, 6 Maro Itoje, 5 Courtney Lawes, 4 Joe Launchbury, 3 Dan Cole, 2 Dylan Hartley (c), 1 Joe Marler
Replacements: 16 Jamie George, 17 Mako Vunipola, 18 Kyle Sinckler, 19 Tom Wood, 20 Nathan Hughes, 21 Danny Care, 22 Ben Te’o, 23 Jack Nowell
Date: Saturday, March 18
Venue: Aviva Stadium
Kick-off: 17:00 GMT
Referee: Jérôme Garcès (France)
Assistant Referees: Mathieu Raynal (France), Marius Mitrea (Italy)
TMO: Ben Skeen (New Zealand)