A win over Ireland will see England clinch the tier-one record for successive Test wins, while completing consecutive Grand Slams, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
IRELAND vs ENGLAND (Saturday, 19:00 SA time)
England claimed the Six Nations title with minimal fuss last weekend as they thrashed Scotland at Twickenham. Nevertheless, this Saturday’s encounter in Dublin is anything but a dead rubber.
Last weekend’s result saw England draw level with the All Blacks’ record of 18 wins on the trot, and there will be no greater motivation than to go past that number and then begin to set their sights on the overall tally of 24 held by unheralded Cyprus.
Beyond that, England will be looking to become the first side to seal back-to-back Grand Slam titles in the professional era.
On the flipside, Ireland will be fighting to finish in second place, but their primary motivation will undoubtedly revolve around successfully executing an ambush on their home turf to deny arch-rivals England this set of historic records.
New Zealand fans certainly won’t need reminding that Ireland were the team that triumphed against all odds to overcome the All Blacks in Chicago last year and end their 18-match winning run.
There is no doubt that wily coach Joe Schmidt will have a few more tricks up his sleeve, while Eddie Jones expects Ireland to readily use the contestable kick, and has therefore selected wingers with the best aerial skills, with Anthony Watson coming into the starting lineup.
The other change to the England lineup comes at No 8, where big Billy Vunipola – who was the star of the 2016 season – returns to provide what should be a boost to the visitors’ ball-carrying ballast.
This blockbuster encounter is set to be played at a jam-packed Aviva Stadium, and while a vociferous crowd should inspire Ireland to greater heights, England have all the motivation to power their way to another famous victory.
Ireland – 15 Jared Payne, 14 Keith Earls, 13 Garry Ringrose, 12 Robbie Henshaw, 11 Simon Zebo, 10 Johnny Sexton, 9 Kieran Marmion, 8 Jamie Heaslip, 7 Sean O’Brien, 6 CJ Stander, 5 Iain Henderson, 4 Donnacha Ryan, 3 Tadgh Furlong, 2 Rory Best (c), 1 Jack McGrath.
Subs: 16 Niall Scannell, 17 Cian Healy, 18 John Ryan, 19 Devin Toner, 20 Peter O’Mahony, 21 Luke McGrath, 22 Paddy Jackson, 23 Andrew Conway.
England – 15 Mike Brown, 14 Anthony Watson, 13 Jonathan Joseph, 12 Owen Farrell, 11 Elliot Daly, 10 George Ford, 9 Ben Youngs, 8 Billy Vunipola, 7 James Haskell, 6 Maro Itoje, 5 Courtney Lawes, 4 Joe Launchbury, 3 Dan Cole, 2 Dylan Hartley (c), 1 Joe Marler.
Subs: 16 Jamie George, 17 Mako Vunipola, 18 Kyle Sinckler, 19 Tom Wood, 20 Nathan Hughes, 21 Danny Care, 22 Ben Te’o, 23 Jack Nowell.
FRANCE vs WALES (Saturday, 16:45 SA time)
This encounter will serve as something of a curtain-raiser for the main attraction later in the day, but both sides will fully appreciate that second place on the standings is still up for grabs.
Wales will be confident after their impressive win over Ireland last weekend, and have understandably named an unchanged match 23, while experienced lock Sébastien Vahaamahina returns to the second row in the only change for France.
This is sure to be a fiercely-fought affair, but expect the likes of influential winger George North to inspire Wales to a third win of the season.
France – 15 Brice Dulin, 14 Noa Nakaitaci, 13 Rémi Lamerat, 12 Gaël Fickou, 11 Virimi Vakatawa, 10 Camille Lopez, 9 Baptiste Serin, 8 Louis Picamoles, 7 Kévin Gourdon, 6 Fabien Sanconnie, 5 Yoann Maestri, 4 Sébastien Vahaamahina, 3 Rabah Slimani, 2 Guilhem Guirado (c), 1 Cyril Baille.
Subs: 16 Camille Chat, 17 Uini Atonio, 18 Eddy Ben Arous, 19 Julien Le Devedec, 20 Bernard Le Roux, 21 Antoine Dupont, 22 François Trinh-Duc, 23 Yoann Huget.
Wales – 15 Leigh Halfpenny, 14 George North, 13 Jonathan Davies, 12 Scott Williams, 11 Liam Williams, 10 Dan Biggar, 9 Rhys Webb, 8 Ross Moriarty, 7 Justin Tipuric, 6 Sam Warburton, 5 Alun Wyn Jones (c), 4 Jake Ball, 3 Tomas Francis, 2 Ken Owens, 1 Rob Evans.
Subs: 16 Scott Baldwin, 17 Nicky Smith, 18 Samson Lee, 19 Luke Charteris, 20 Taulupe Faletau, 21 Gareth Davies, 22 Sam Davies, 23 Jamie Roberts.
SCOTLAND vs ITALY (Saturday, 14:30 SA time)
For Scotland, it’s been a Six Nations campaign where they underlined the progress that they have made under astute coach Vern Cotter. However, for Italy, one defeat after another has once again left them holding the wooden spoon.
In this last throw of the dice, Italy have made four changes to their starting lineup, while Ross Ford comes in at hooker in the only change for Scotland.
A win for Scotland could see them equal their best-ever finish in the Six Nations (having finished third on three previous occasions), while there is even an outside chance of claiming second spot should everything go their way. Ultimately, expect the Scots to complete an impressive campaign on a high.
Scotland – 15 Stuart Hogg, 14 Tommy Seymour, 13 Huw Jones, 12 Alex Dunbar, 11 Tim Visser, 10 Finn Russell, 9 Ali Price, 8 Ryan Wilson, 7 Hamish Watson, 6 John Barclay (c), 5 Jonny Gray, 4 Richie Gray, 3 Zander Fagerson, 2 Ross Ford, 1 Gordon Reid.
Subs: 16 Fraser Brown, 17 Allan Dell, 18 Simon Berghan, 19 Tim Swinson, 20 Cornell Du Preez, 21 Henry Pyrgos, 22 Duncan Weir, 23 Matt Scott.
Italy – 15 Edoardo Padovani, 14 Angelo Esposito, 13 Tommaso Benvenuti, 12 Luke McLean, 11 Giovanbattista Venditti, 10 Carlo Canna, 9 Edoardo Gori, 8 Sergio Parisse (c), 7 Abraham Steyn, 6 Maxime Mata Mbanda, 5 George Biagi, 4 Marco Fuser, 3 Lorenzo Cittadini, 2 Ornel Gega, 1 Andrea Lovotti.
Subs: 16 Leonardo Ghiraldini, 17 Sami Panico, 18 Dario Chistolini, 19 Andries van Schalkwyk, 20 Federico Ruzza, 21 Francesco Minto, 22 Marcello Violi, 23 Luca Sperandio.
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