England are on the trail of a triple crown of Six Nations grand slams in Ireland this weekend. The under-20s, like Eddie Jones’s senior side, clinched their title with a match to spare while England’s women – the Red Roses – face Ireland, who are also unbeaten. Both are in action on St Patrick’s Day night at Donnybrook, a few hefty punts away from the Aviva Stadium, in search of a clean sweep.
England Under-20s have not only won their four matches this year but have secured a try bonus point in each, securing a points difference of 132. The Red Roses, fresh from a 64-0 demolition of Scotland last Saturday, failed to score four tries only against France in the opening match having trailed 13-0 at the interval and are looking to win the title for the first time since 2012. Victory for England Women would mark their 14th title in total from the days of the Home Nations Championship and Five Nations, all but one of which achieved with a grand slam.
The Red Roses hope Friday will not be the last major showdown they have across the Irish Sea this year, with the Women’s World Cup being staged in Dublin and Belfast in August. They have won their last three matches against Ireland, but all by five points or fewer.
“We have put ourselves in a position to realise our Six Nations ambitions of winning the championship but we’re under no illusions of how difficult the task will be,” said the Red Roses’ head coach, Simon Middleton. “If you are going to win massive tournaments you have to go into the lions’ den and that is what this occasion is all about.
“You want players who have been to major events and who know what a game like this is all about – they can guide the others. We would be crazy not to draw on the experience of those who have won the World Cup or played in the Olympics. Some of the rugby we have played this year has been brilliant and inspiring, but this game will be different to anything we have seen so far in the Six Nations and that will be another challenge for us.”
While the senior England men’s side is picked largely from the leading sides in the Premiership, in the Under-20s 15 of Friday night’s 23 are drawn from clubs in the lower half of the table and the Championship. The top two clubs, Wasps and Exeter, are not represented, although they were in the last round, while London Irish supply three players.
It shows the strength of the men’s game in England and if the senior side had to come from behind in the final quarter of their first three matches in the Six Nations to secure victory, the under-20s were only in trouble against Wales, where they trailed 13-0 early on before scoring three tries in the final nine minutes of the first half.
Most of the Premiership players in the side have only appeared for their clubs this season in the Anglo-Welsh Cup but in the back row the Curry brothers – Tom and Ben – have been regulars in Sale’s match-day 23 since the opening six weeks of the season, while the captain, Zach Mercer, has made 14 appearances for Bath and been namechecked by Jones, who will be testing the depth of his resources in Argentina in the summer.
Since the Six Nations Under-20s Championship was introduced in 2008, only England have won all three titles in the same year. That was 2011, when the senior men’s team was the only one not to complete the grand slam and, as this year, the final match was in Dublin.
“We have been working hard on making sure the players concentrate on how they perform and don’t focus too much on the occasion,” said the under-20s coach, Ian Vass. “It’s important we prepare ourselves mentally and physically like we have previously in the tournament and hopefully the result will take care of itself.”