From the rain-lashed streets of Dublin to the hills of Dunedin in New Zealand, all eyes in the rugby world will be trained on the Aviva Stadium on Saturday afternoon to bear witness to triumph on a grand scale or to what England captain Dylan Hartley describes as the “dirty feeling” of losing a match yet still winning a title.
Greatness by any measure is within England’s reach but so too is hollow anticlimax. England have landmarks to hit while Ireland are cast in the role of deniers-in-chief. The deserted streets around Lansdowne Road on Friday as the locals headed into the city for St Patrick’s Day parades will bear no resemblance to the tumult that will erupt if there is an Irish uprising to rank with famous rebellious actions of the past, 2007 at Croke Park or four years ago here in the selfsame surrounds. There are plenty of demons in these parts to stalk English dreams.
Ireland, as they showed when bringing the All Blacks’ 18-match winning streak to an end in Chicago, are a team of heft and possibility, albeit the loss of scrum-half Conor Murray carries with it the air of a game-changer. This is a day in prospect that has stirred England, not weighed down on them, fired imaginations and stiffened sinews rather than set anxiety rampant. They know that this will be a defining experience.
Lose, and quibbles as to their genuine worth are given credence. Win, and their status as global contenders is assured. England are fully aware as to what is at stake.
“We have to relish the moment, to seize the opportunity, to embrace the occasion,” said Hartley. “And then, once it starts, it is about a kick-off, a catch, a carry or a ruck. We have to then stay in the moment, look after each and every moment for 80 minutes and the result will take care of itself.”
And if that were to come to pass there is little doubt that Hartley’s team would be inscribed in the history books and have the right to assume the aura that might one day see them enrolled in rugby’s Mount Rushmore.
Back-to-back Grand Slams is rare (five times in over a century). 19 wins in a row would be no fluke. Even hard-bitten Kiwis in the land of the one-eyed acknowledge that.
“There is tremendous interest here in England possibly breaking the All Blacks’ record and although we are not as begrudging as you might think, there is a sense that the true litmus test of England will only come when they do play New Zealand,” said Tony Johnson, the veteran, highly-respected Kiwi broadcaster. “The country will be up early to take it in.”
And much as the to-and-fro of this match will shape and redefine perspectives there is little doubt, either, that no matter what happens this is not the end of something but rather the start.
“A young England side with the right age profile, a stack of quality players on the Premiership conveyor belt, you’d have to believe that England will be up there with New Zealand now for some time to come as the best there is in the world,” said David Humphreys, the former Ireland fly-half and Gloucester director of rugby, who was in action at Lansdowne Road in 2003 when Clive Woodward’s side finally, after three failures, nailed a Grand Slam.
“Clive challenged his team before that game to do the business or forget about winning a World Cup. The message is very similar this weekend.”
So much for the ramifications. The nitty-gritty took on a much less palatable hue for Irish fans on Thursday with news that Murray’s shoulder problems had ruled him out. No matter that Ireland are unbeaten at home in the championship for three years, the loss of such a pivotal player has handed a sizeable advantage to England. Kieran Marmion is a busy, darting scrum-half but Ireland’s resources are being stretched, with the bench looking threadbare by comparison with England’s. The Murray-Johnny Sexton axis has been instrumental to Ireland’s success.
There was a downbeat air at Ireland’s final press conference, no fire and brimstone about repelling the foreign raiders, with the admirably stout-hearted Ireland captain, Rory Best, insisting that dwelling on the emotions of the opposition, would be a waste of energy. For Ireland, it is “a big deal to put in a performance and leave the championship on a high. We expect better of ourselves”.
And so they should. Even without Murray, and another casualty, full-back Rob Kearney, Ireland have enough with which to trouble any side, from their barnstorming back row, led by the formidable flank duo of C J Stander and Sean O’Brien, to the well-oiled centre partnership of Robbie Henshaw and Gary Ringrose and on to the speedsters on the wide outside, Simon Zebo and Keith Earls.
But Ireland will have to be right on top of their game, and England off colour, which they had been at times up until the beating handed out to Scotland last weekend, if the slam is to be stopped. There is a real sense that England have unshackled themselves, that they travel not with hope but expectation, that the resolve and fiery ball-carrying of Courtney Lawes, the churning potential of Billy Vunipola, the box-of-tricks combo of George Ford and Owen Farrell, and the finishing of Jonathan Joseph and Anthony Watson, are all aces in their own right.
Replacement scrum-half Danny Care believes that this is “the best England team” he has been involved with. In the words of Eddie Jones, they are “adaptive, resilient and self-reliant”. They have a sharp sense of themselves and, tellingly, absolute faith in the game plan.
“We have an unbelievable amount of clarity as to how we want to play and with that you get belief, a feeling that you don’t need to go off-script or pull rabbits out of hats because everyone has belief in the plan,” said scrum-half Ben Youngs.
It is all within their grasp. Even the real Ireland, the one that stopped New Zealand in their record-breaking tracks, would struggle to contain them. England are a good side with a fabulous record. Victory would transition them to greatness.