WHAT PROMISED TO be a thrilling finale to the Six Nations has threatened to become an underwhelming anticlimax from an Irish perspective, but Joe Schmidt’s side are focused on ending the campaign on a high at the Aviva Stadium [KO 5pm, RTE 2] this evening.
Captain Rory Best yesterday admitted it has been a tough week in the aftermath of the defeat in Cardiff last Friday and Ireland would have done an element of soul-searching in the build-up to their final outing.
Irrespective of what is said by Schmidt and his players, this has been a disappointing campaign for Ireland and a third defeat of the championship later would potentially leave only Italy below them in the final standings.
There may be nothing tangible on the line for the hosts, but there is certainly plenty at stake with pride, world ranking points and the small element of denying England a Grand Slam all serving as motivation.
Above all, however, is a determination to produce a big performance at home after defeats to Scotland and Wales ended any hope of a Grand Slam decider.
England arrive in Dublin bristling with confidence and as Six Nations champions for the second consecutive year. Eddie Jones’ men are bidding for a win that would see them set a new record of 19 consecutive Test victories by a top tier nation.
Victory at Lansdowne Road would also mean they would become the first side in the Six Nations era to complete back-to-back Grand Slams.
“I think big games always require a massive physical effort obviously but it requires real, real mental strength because it’s going to come down to fine margins,” Best said.
“A lot of it is the team which makes the fewest mistakes will win. The team that have the mental fortitude and courage to go out and take those opportunities when they are there will also win so from that side of things it does take a massive one.
“To say they’re playing for a Grand Slam, but we’ve got a home record we want to keep intact. We’re back in front of our home fans. There has been a lot made about this game so there is pressure on from that side for us. Look, ultimately we want to finish with a massive result. I don’t think that their want is any more than ours.”
There’s also the extra dimension which comes in a Lions year as players from both sides battle for places in Warren Gatland’s squad for the tour of New Zealand this summer.
Conor Murray is a near certainty to be included but Ireland will be without the influential scrum-half today as he misses out through injury, in one of three changes Schmidt has made to his XV from Cardiff.
Connacht’s Kieran Marmion deputises at nine and while Murray’s absence has only heightened the size of the task facing Ireland, Best has backed his replacement to step in and fill the void.
“It is a massive day for him,” the captain admitted. “You just have to look at the way he’s performing, not just last season, but this season for Connacht. It is something he deserves.
“He is very unlucky he is behind a real world-class nine. It is his day. We always talk that you get your opportunity along the line through someone else’s misfortune.
“His opportunity has come now. For Kieran in his first start in the Six Nations, it is important we give him a big armchair ride because it will make the job easier.
“Having said that, we’ve seen him play for Connacht off anything. We have a lot of confidence in his ability. He’s performing well in training this week. He performed well last week.
“We have no doubt he will perform well.”
Victory for the hosts could see them finish second in the championship and, at the same time, would preserve a place in the top four of the world rankings ahead of the pool draw for the 2019 World Cup in May.
“For us, we just have to keep to our tactics, and make sure we’re very very good,” Best added.
“If we start to give England easy access through penalties, knock ons and missed tackles, that’s when they’re going to come into the game but if we can go out and play close to the perfect game – and you’ll never get a perfect game, because regardless the result both teams will come in tomorrow and say ‘we can always improve’, but you’ve got to be close to that and the closer you get the more pressure it puts on the opposition.
“Sometimes it’s through tactics like Italy pulled, other times it’s just playing the game really, really well. We’ll want to surprise them with a few things, but at the same time we’ll want to execute everything we control as well as we can.”
15. Jared Payne
14. Keith Earls
13. Garry Ringrose
12. Robbie Henshaw
11. Simon Zebo
10. Jonathan Sexton
9. Kieran Marmion
1. Jack McGrath
2. Rory Best (Capt)
3. Tadhg Furlong
4. Donnacha Ryan
5. Iain Henderson
6. CJ Stander
7. Sean O’Brien
8. Jamie Heaslip
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
15. Mike Brown
14. Anthony Watson
13. Jonathan Joseph
12. Owen Farrell
11. Elliot Daly
10. George Ford
9. Ben Youngs
1. Joe Marler
2. Dylan Hartley (captain)
3. Dan Cole
4. Joe Launchbury
5. Courtney Lawes
6. Maro Itoje
7. James Haskell
8. Billy Vunipola
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
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