When is a championship not a championship? The question makes no sense, apart from in the Six Nations when a Grand Slam is on the line on the final weekend. England have that opportunity when they travel to Dublin for Saturday’s tournament finale, as a victory over Ireland will secure them a second consecutive clean sweep. As Eddie Jones put it, “greatness” awaits.
But England have been here before, and the last time they were, they choked. They took to the Aviva Stadium turf knowing victory would not only secure them the 2011 Grand Slam, but emulate the famous success that the then head coach, Martin Johnson, secured eight years prior when he captained the soon-to-be world champions to Grand Slam success in Dublin in 2003.
On that occasion, England were sent back across the Irish Sea with their tail between their legs and a 24-8 defeat leaving them deflated and in no mood for celebration, even though they were crowned Six Nations champions. The below-par World Cup performance and subsequent sacking of Johnson can easily be traced back to that harrowing loss.
Among the replacements that day, as he will be again this Saturday, was scrum-half Danny Care. The Harlequins No 9 will not be the only one who runs out in Dublin that will remember what it was like to suffer the hurt of seeing a Grand Slam slip through their fingers, as Dan Cole, James Haskell, Tom Wood, Ben Youngs and captain Dylan Hartley know only too well. But that defeat has been brought up in camp this week, with the senior players keen to prepare the likes of Maro Itoje and Elliot Daly for what will face them on Saturday evening on their first international trip to the Irish capital.
“A big thing for them this week will be to spoil the party and finish their campaign on a high,” Care said. “To us, to get our game on the park, if we do that and we start anywhere like we did [last] weekend, we give ourselves every chance.”
Jones’s side do have everything in their favour. The title is already in the bag thanks to England’s most devastating performance in this year’s tournament in the 61-21 victory over Scotland last weekend, and an 18-Test winning streak shows no signs of stopping given that Jones is yet to taste anything other than victory with England.
But just like the parallels to 2011, this match is remarkably similar to Ireland’s autumn international against New Zealand last October. The All Blacks travelled to Chicago for what was expected to be a 19th Test victory in a row, were caught cold by a determined Irish side, and saw their world record run ended in a 40-29 defeat. England have that same chance, to claim the world record as their own, but that will only give Ireland more fuel to stop them with.
“We won’t take anything for granted this week and we know how good Ireland are and how good they can be in one game,” Care adds. “You saw them blow New Zealand off the park - they have some world class players and it is a very tough place to play. They don't like losing at home and they don't lose many.
“So it’s up to us to have a big start. You’ve seen with this team over the last couple of years, we’ve been down in big games and managed to find a way to get the win – out in Australia, [we] turned round a couple of games there, France this Six Nations. We’ve faced all sorts of different obstacles and a measure of the team is we’re dealing with all the situations quite well. It seems to be going all right at the moment.”
But for Care and Youngs, the man who will start at scrum-half this weekend, there will be a chance to impress. That’s because Conor Murray will not be standing opposite them, the man currently favourite for the British and Irish Lions Test spot ruled out of the clash due to the ‘stinger’ injury suffered in last Friday’s defeat by Wales. In comes replacement Kieran Marmion, the Connacht scrum-half who doesn’t quite possess the same talent as Murray, especially when it comes to the side’s ability to pressure an opponent with the boot.
“We know Ireland come with a very good kicking game,” acknowledges Care. “Conor Murray’s probably one of the best in the world at box-kicking and Johnny Sexton is an unbelievable kicker as well so we know they like to test you in the air and it’s something the back three have talked about.
“[Mike] Brown I think is one of the best in the world at taking those high balls, and he’s been leading the way with trying to help the lads out there this week.”
Not one of the England back-three that starts on Saturday knows what it feels like to lose a Grand Slam on the final weekend, but if the likes of Care and Youngs don’t conquer their 2011 demons, they’ll understand that pain soon enough.