Ireland vs. England on the final day of the Six Nations has often been a Grand Slam decider in recent years. This time, with both teams out of title contention, there’s a very different motivation in play — selection for the British and Irish Lions squad.
Ireland flyhalf Jonathan Sexton believes, for example, the final Six Nations standings will directly correlate with the number of players from each country included in Warren Gatland’s party for the South Africa tour — wherever that takes place.
Ireland is in second place, a point ahead of England in fourth. Wales, the only team still able to win the Grand Slam, is sure to finish ahead of both. “It will be a big game in the decision-making process, we know that,” Sexton says with a nod to the Lions, with whom he toured in 2013 and ’17.
“Wales, if they go and win a Grand Slam, they will have the majority of guys on tour, and whoever finishes second will get the next most. That’s generally what it’s been, historically that has been the case.”
The championship threatened to veer from underwhelming to humiliating for both England and Ireland, only for significant wins in Round 4 to steady the ship in both camps. Having started with losses to Wales and France, Ireland backed up an expected win over Italy by beating Scotland to leave Andy Farrell’s team with some positivity to take away.
Still, Sexton looks at the tournament as “one that got away.” “We could very easily be going for a championship this weekend — the same as England,” he said. “There is so little between a lot of the teams in this competition … very little between going for a Grand Slam and nothing.”
England won a humdinger against France at Twickenham last Saturday to get back on track after losing to Scotland and Wales, with the first half against Les Tricolores arguably Eddie Jones’ team’s best showing since beating New Zealand in the 2019 Rugby World Cup semifinals.
That England lost the final to South Africa a week later is a reminder for Jones not to get carried away. “Experience tells us that if you play in a game like that, like the World Cup semifinal where there is a lot of ball movement, in the next game generally the opposition try to take that away from you,” Jones said.
“That is sensible and the game becomes more of an attritional game. So we’re preparing for an attritional game and if it happens to go the other way, then we want to be ready to take our opportunities.”
The English have also won their last four games against Ireland, starting with a 32-20 victory in Dublin in the 2019 Six Nations and including a 57-15 walloping in a World Cup warmup the same year. Elliot Daly was recalled to the England team, but not in his usual position at center. Instead, he slots in at center in place of the injured Henry Slade in the only change from the France game.
CJ Stander will make his 51st and last appearance for Ireland in Dublin, having announced he will be retiring from rugby for family reasons at the end of the season, when he will be 31. Winger Jacob Stockdale is back from injury for what will be his first Ireland appearance since the Autumn Nations Cup, while scrumhalf Conor Murray returns from a hamstring problem and Bundee Aki replaces the injured Garry Ringrose at inside center.
Ireland: Hugo Keenan, Keith Earls, Robbie Henshaw, Bundee Aki, Jacob Stockdale, Jonathan Sexton (captain), Conor Murray; Jack Conan, Josh van der Flier, CJ Stander, Tadhg Beirne, Iain Henderson, Tadhg Furlong, Rob Herring, Dave Kilcoyne. Reserves: Ronan Kelleher, Cian Healy, Andrew Porter, Ryan Baird, Peter O’Mahony, Jamison Gibson-Park, Billy Burns, Jordan Larmour.
England: Max Malins, Anthony Watson, Elliot Daly, Owen Farrell (captain), Jonny May, George Ford, Ben Youngs; Billy Vunipola, Tom Curry, Mark Wilson, Charlie Ewels, Maro Itoje, Kyle Sinckler, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Mako Vunipola. Reserves: Jamie George, Ellis Genge, Will Stuart, Jonny Hill, Ben Earl, Dan Robson, Ollie Lawrence, Joe Marchant.