England face tricky final Grand Slam hurdle
England travel to Dublin on Saturday (1700GMT) virtually assured of their first Six Nations title for eight years but with one daunting obstacle still in front of them if they are to secure the Grand Slam.
Having lost six of their last seven games against Ireland it would be an impressive achievement as well as marking another significant milestone in their recovery under Martin Johnson, who captained England to their last title in 2003.
That was also achieved with a clean sweep and it would be the fourth grand slam in four seasons by four different teams following France, Ireland and Wales.
While that is great for the fans, and part of the enduring attraction of the competition, it is also more a reflection of widespread European mediocrity than a succession of great sides.
France have fallen from the best team in Europe to losing to Italy for the first time and, having also been beaten at Twickenham, they desperately need to finish on a high by beating Wales in Paris in the final game of the championship (1945).
Wales are the only team who can deny England the title but to do so England have to lose and the Welsh beat France, with the two results overturning a 42-point differential.
Italy, desperate to build on that famous victory after coming so close against Ireland, visit Scotland (14.30) in what has become the traditional wooden spoon decider.
Eight years ago England travelled to Dublin on a wave of confidence but still nervous about a clean sweep. They had won the title twice in the previous three years but had also missed out on the Grand Slam with some painful last-fence failures.
However, they roared to a 42-6 victory that became the springboard for summer success in New Zealand and Australia and later in the year their triumph in the World Cup.
Johnson’s side as a coach is nowhere near as established as the one he played in but they have developed enormously in the last 18 months and, with 14 players unchanged in the first four games, have a settled and confident look about them.
An ankle injury to centre, captain and 2003 veteran Mike Tindall looks like it may end that run, with Matt Banahan set to deputise, but such a switch is unlikely to worry them much.
“I think this group are even more ambitious than the 2003 side,” scrum coach Graham Rowntree said this week.
“We give them the menu and they decide how to play.”
Sunday’s game, however, will be as much about nerve as verve and Ireland flyhalf Ronan O’Gara, replaced by Jonathan Sexton in the starting lineup, says England have it all to do.
“Grand Slam winners often stagger over the finish line and it won’t be a normal game at all for England,” he said. “We have six wins from seven matches against them and they’ve only won once here this century.”
Wales will be hoping Ireland extend that impressive record, giving them the chance to snatch the title in Paris.
The French are in disarray and though coach Marc Lievremont apologised for calling his players cowards and warning that many of them would never play for France again after the Italy game, he still made his customary changes, five this time.
Lievremont is fighting for his coaching life, though, and any change would be unlikely with this the last meaningful game before the World Cup.
Wales will be without Shane Williams after the 34-year-old winger, who is retiring after the World Cup, suffered a knee injury.
They are boosted up front by the return of British and Irish Lions prop Adam Jones for the first time this year.
Scotland, who have lost all four games, need an eight-point victory to climb above Italy and condemn their opponents to last place for the fourth year in a row.
If Italy triumph it would be only the second time, after 2007, that they have won two games in the championship.
They have won three of the teams’ last four Six Nations meetings, including in Edinburgh in 2007, their only away victory since joining the competition 11 years ago.
Follow Emirates 24|7 on Google News.