Harlequins captain Joe Marler has urged his side to play with a “cup final mentality” in each of their remaining five games of the season, starting against Saracens at Wembley today.
England prop Marler returns to lead Quins into battle against their local rivals, with the club’s hopes of a place in next season’s European Champions Cup hanging by a thread.
The fixture between the two sides at football’s HQ has become a recent tradition, but while a crowd nearing 90,000 – a world record for a club fixture – is expected, it is not a top-of-the-table clash.
Saracens remain third and well in the hunt for a play-off place, however, Quins are mired in eighth after a season of struggle, four points off seventh and the chance of continental salvation it offers.
“These next five games are huge for everyone that we’re playing against,” Marler told Sport360° of a run-in that includes four games against sides also scrapping for the top six.
“But we’ll focus on ourselves, we’ll approach every game with a cup final mentality because we want to play in Europe next year.
“This club deserves to be in Europe next year, we haven’t had the best of seasons but we’ve got five games to put that right and we’ll see where we end up at the end of it.”
Marler is joined in the Quins starting XV by England team-mates Chris Robshaw and Nick Easter, while international colleagues Billy and Mako Vunipola line up for their hosts, who include Richard Wigglesworth on the bench.
It is not just in the stands where milestones will be set, with Saracens’ fly-half Charlie Hodgson marking a century of appearances for the north London club.
— George Robson (@thegoatman5) March 27, 2015
George Robson meanwhile is chalking up 200 games for Quins, with Ugo Monye also starting following a week in which he announced his retirement from rugby.
Saracens director of rugby Mark McCall admits his side will use the game to fine-tune ahead of their Champions Cup quarter-final with Racing Metro next weekend. Although he has resisted the urge to rest players.
He said: “For the international players it would be more difficult to go somewhere else and play again after what happened last weekend. But to go to Wembley, with maybe up to 90,000 people there, will be exciting for everyone.”
Ireland bosses will battle to convince captain Paul O’Connell to delay his retirement and commit to another year of Test rugby,
according to team-mate Robbie Henshaw.
Talisman skipper O’Connell drove Ireland to retain their Six Nations title, claiming the first try in his side’s 40-10 victory over Scotland at Murrayfield.
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Ireland sneaked to the title on points-difference, after England failed to produce a 26-point victory over France, retaining the trophy for the first time since 1949.
Evergreen lock O’Connell is weighing up retiring from Test rugby after the autumn World Cup, which would leave securing back-to-back titles as his Six Nations swansong.
Connacht centre Henshaw hailed O’Connell as the “ultimate leader”, and tipped the 35-year-old to come under pressure to sign up for one more year.
— Irish Rugby (@IrishRugby) March 21, 2015
“He led and everyone else followed,” said Henshaw of O’Connell. “He’s just an unbelievable leader.
“I think the charisma oozes out of him, he’s an unbelievable player, and to be doing what he’s doing at the back-end of his career is unreal.
“I think he’s just an inspirational guy. I would say that people will try to convince him into another year, yeah.
“I can imagine next year he’d be asked to stay on.”
O’Connell became Ireland’s oldest try scorer of all time by crossing the whitewash in Scotland, consigning the hosts to the Wooden Spoon.
Joe Schmidt’s side had to watch on nervously as England saw off France 55-35 at Twickenham, falling six points short of the margin required to take the title.
Henshaw said the British and Irish Lions veteran retains a light-hearted side however, throwing in a touch of levity to help the Connacht centre cope with his first full Six Nations campaign.
“Joe mentioned that Paul took the bull by the horns during the week and he really stepped it up after we were really disappointed with the defeat to Wales,” said Henshaw.
“It’s just the guy he is, he really took control during the week and got us going.
“He just said ‘we’re not going to get ahead of ourselves, we’re still in it’, and he told us all not to be too down.
“We were looking at the results first and then would see what the points would be like on the day.
“So I like that part of him as well, he’s not too intense, he knows how to switch off, and have good craic with the lads.
“All in all he’s just the ultimate leader and the ultimate captain.”
The Six Nations came to an end this past weekend in an explosion of point-scoring, in what was a celebration of rugby.
However, attention will now turn to this autumn’s Rugby World Cup when the Six Nations sides will come face-to-face with the best that the Southern Hemisphere has to offer.
New Zealand, South Africa and Australia, in particular, will be considered among the favourites to claim the title at Twickenham.
Our #360debate today is: Can a Northern Hemisphere team win the 2015 World Cup?
Matthew Jones, Reporter, thinks YES
On home soil and on the back of a thrillingly competitive Six Nations, there is no more opportune time for a Northern Hemisphere team to win the Rugby World Cup.
The major barrier – and most would probably regard the All Blacks more of an immovable object – will be the absolute necessity to play a flawless 80 minutes of rugby against the world’s best.
This will be the eighth World Cup, of which the Southern Hemisphere sides have won six of the previous seven. The Europeans have featured in five of those finals, however, and there have been many ‘oh so nears’ and ‘what ifs’.
What a nutty day. Just the 221pts across three 6N games. Unbelievable drama. Congrats Ireland. England bridesmaids again. Bring on RWC!
— Alastair Eykyn (@alastaireykyn) March 21, 2015
The men from the land of the long white cloud will be overwhelming favourites to retain their crown, and rightly so, but fans of Ireland, England and Wales should be hugely encouraged by the form of their teams.
The Six Nations as a whole and especially Saturday’s frenzied points scoring finale will have rightly instilled confidence. Ireland and Wales showed coldblooded ruthlessness against Scotland and Italy, while England, with 157 total points, displayed their burgeoning attacking prowess under Stuart Lancaster.
Additionally, in eight Autumn internationals featuring the best three sides from each hemisphere, the scores were tied 4-4, with the northern hemisphere winning 186-183 on points.
Following a purposeful Six Nations and the fact the southern triumvirate travel north again in September, it’s likely that the gap will be similarly snug.
England and Wales have the toughest World Cup pool, but both can make the quarters and take advantage of an Australian side in transition.
One will have to face South Africa, most likely Wales, but after their win over the Springboks in the autumn the Dragons can torch them again.
Ireland’s path to glory should be straightforward, until a last four showdown with the All Blacks. The prospect of the north wrestling the World Cup from the grip of New Zealand is possible. It just depends whether the three teams believe that.
James Piercy, Deputy Editor, thinks No
The pieces are certainly falling into place for one of Ireland, England or Wales to have a real crack at the World Cup.
The Northern Hemisphere’s current ‘Big Three’ will be expected to go toe-to-toe with the powerhouse trio in the south having showcased all of their key attributes across their five games in the Six Nations.
Ireland’s pack, kicking ability and game management; Wales’ huge-tackling defence and awesome three-quarter barrage; England with an uncharacteristic free-flowing fluidity in midfield.
However, none of the three sides were able to do it with any great consistency, playing at least one off game, and revealing some glaring limitations as well as obvious strengths.
Wales remain a little too one-dimensional under Warren Gatland, Italy performance aside. It’s all in your face with big powerful carries and then their loose forwards playing on the shoulder.
England figured them out and if Ireland – outlining their own limitations – were a bit more cute and creativity in attack would have won in Cardiff. Likewise, the Red Rose displayed their inexperience in Dublin and even at Twickenham against Scotland and France, either failing to take their chances or showing an inability to play running rugby with any great security.
What happens to Ireland’s gameplan against the top sides if Sexton gets injured? Can Wales alter their approach against the awesome defensive units of New Zealand and South Africa?
Are England still a work in progress and can they handle the pressure of expectation? Evidence so far, under Stuart Lancaster, suggests no.
Which brings us onto the All Blacks and Springboks whose combined record in World Cups against the north’s top trio is one defeat in 12 matches.
They can match them in attack and defence, forwards, backs and goalkicking, each have a perfect blend of youth and experience, will be tournament-ready having just completed the Rugby Championship and simply know how to combat everything the north have to offer.