The final round of Six Nations fixtures is upon us; Ireland have the title in the bag already – but what are the burning questions as we prepare to round off a largely one-sided competition?
Can England get back on the chariot?
While Ireland roll into Twickenham with a Grand Slam on their mind, the bulk of the attention will still fall on England. Cut apart by Scotland, and humbled by France, the wheels have well and truly fallen off for Eddie Jones in the space of a fortnight.
With question marks hanging over a number of his high-profile charges including Dylan Hartley, Chris Robshaw, Danny Care and George Ford, can Jones re-ignite the side to the levels of the last 18 months when they were considered potential 2019 World Cup winners?
A change of personnel is needed, but the Australian coach is known for his stubbornness and insistence on doing things his way.
If they don’t change, both the starting line-up and their style of play, the Irish will have a field day – particularly at the breakdown leaving the Red Rose at their lowest ebb during Jones’ tenure.
Will Scotland find a performance? Can Italy prove their worth?
Gregor Townsend’s men go from the sublime to the ridiculous. Woeful in Cardiff, battling against France, destructive against England, toothless against Ireland.
What they would give for a little consistency.
They are in a no-win situation heading to Rome but a comfortable win would at least end things on a high for them.
Italy have been in reverse for two years and the calls for their future in the Six Nations to be considered get louder and louder.
With Georgia knocking on the door, Conor O’Shea’s men need a performance. Not necessarily a win, but an 80-minute performance that shows the rugby world they can compete and are not out of sight long before the end.
Will we see into the future in Cardiff?
Despite a mixed bag of results, you could still argue Wales have been something of a surprise package in this Six Nations.
A new style of play, and the revelation of a greater strength in depth than the Welsh public thought has Warren Gatland’s men looking in a good place.
With the injection of new-blood has come a greater sense of optimism, not only for the immediate future, but for the World Cup which is quickly creeping upon us.
End the Six Nations on a high, and a likely second-place finish and there are more than solid foundations to build on for the coming years.
As for the French, who knows what the future could hold? They need to get out of Cardiff with their pride intact and back to the drawing board.
England captain Dylan Hartley is expected to be available to face Ireland at Twickenham on Saturday but doubt now hovers over the fitness of Elliot Daly.
Hartley could return for the final round of the NatWest 6 Nations against the newly crowned champions after missing the 22-16 defeat in France because of a tight calf that developed in training last week.
Jamie George deputised at hooker in Hartley’s absence – Owen Farrell took over as skipper – but the Saracen failed to make an impact at the Stade de France so Hartley is poised to make an immediate comeback.
“Dylan ran this morning (Monday) but we need to get a medical report on him,” head coach Eddie Jones said.
“I expect him to be available but we’ll just have to wait and see. If he’s fit then he’ll be playing.”
Daly’s fitness hinges on a scan for a foot injury with the Wasps wing currently wearing a protective boot around his left leg.
The trip to Paris was Daly’s first appearance of the 2018 Six Nations, having recovered from ankle and calf problems, and he acquitted himself well in difficult circumstances.
“The boot is just a precaution. He’ll go for a scan today (Monday),” Jones said.
Defeat by Ireland would condemn England to their worst Six Nations performance since 2006 – the last time they lost three games in a Championship – and they could finish as low as fifth in the table.
The latest world rankings, published on Monday, revealed that they have been replaced by Joe Schmidt’s men in second place in the wake of successive defeats by Scotland and France.
Asked if his belief in what the team can achieve has been shaken, Jones replied: “No, not at all.
“Every good team goes through this period. It’s actually an essential part of developing a great team.
“The learnings we’ll get from this, albeit very painful, are absolutely crucial going forward because it’s about how we respond.
“It’s not as if we can’t play Rugby, we know we’ve got good players as they’ve played for the Lions and won games for England.
“When you get a loss it tests your mental resolve and that’s the test we’ve got to face.
“Obviously we need to get over the disappointment of losing to France. We’ve reflected on the game and we did enough to win, but sometimes the result doesn’t go your way.
“We’ve just got to focus now on Ireland. We’ve started that with a short run this (Monday) morning and a couple of meetings to get us on the front foot.
“Ireland are a good team. I said at the start of the tournament they’re a good team and they’ve proved that – they’re worthy champions of the Six Nations.”
Provided by Press Association Sport
Ireland have finally lifted the ban on Grand Slam talk, Conor Murray has admitted.
Joe Schmidt’s side swiped a third NatWest 6 Nations title in five years with Saturday’s 28-8 victory over Scotland in Dublin.
Now the Irish could seal just a third-ever clean sweep with a victory over England at Twickenham on Saturday that would spark jubilant St Patrick’s Day celebrations.
Taskmaster boss Schmidt famously has his players well-drilled on the party line of remaining next-game focused – but British and Irish Lions scrum-half Murray conceded there is no more avoiding the main issue when that next game is a Grand Slam decider.
“We can start talking about it now, because that’s what’s in front of us if things go well,” said Murray of Ireland’s bid for a Grand Slam to echo the achievements of 1948 and 2009.
“It would be right up there, probably at the top. Only Rob (Kearney) and Rory (Best) are left that have won a slam.
“The motivation is in our group and it’s about how we avoid the distraction of all that and go about our business like we usually do in a match week with something really special to play for.
“It’s not daunting, it’s a massive occasion, but it’s one this group is going to enjoy and relish.
“We do have the ability, it’s just about getting that performance together and trying to nail it as best we can.
“It’s a massive occasion and one a lot of lads haven’t faced into before. But there’s a lot of lads in the group that have played in massive, massive games and know how to go about a big match week.
“There’s a crop of younger players in this group that the older, more experienced players can guide through the week. I wouldn’t have any fears about the younger players, they’re just so good at Rugby that it comes so naturally to them.
“If there’s a bit of advice here and there that older lads can give, I’m sure we will. That’s the challenge of a unique week we have.”
Ireland set a new record of 11 consecutive wins with Saturday’s victory over Scotland, leapfrogging England into second place in the World Rugby rankings.
A shot at the Grand Slam awaits… pic.twitter.com/Jo0QXg3hXB
— NatWest 6 Nations (@SixNationsRugby) March 10, 2018
England’s back-to-back defeats to Scotland and France now leave Eddie Jones’ side staring down the barrel of their worst Six Nations since 2006.
England could even finish as low as fifth in the table should Ireland complete the Grand Slam – but British and Irish Lions star Murray insisted Schmidt’s side still expect a ferocious English performance this weekend.
“They’ve had a couple of tough games but they’re still the same side which won a slam and another championship back-to-back,” said Murray, of England.
“So that’s the same thing as us losing a game here or there, a couple of things not going right, but we still believe we’re good enough and we would be. England are going to be no different. They’re going to be coming home, they’re going to have a lot to play for, a lot of pride as well, they’re full of world-class players.
“I wouldn’t get fooled by the fact they’ve lost a couple of games. I still think they’re a really, really good side that can be very dangerous.
“I don’t think we’ll fall into that trap, definitely not. I think we’ve enough knowledge about them and experience to deal with that.”
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