RBS Six Nations
Saturday: Aviva Stadium, 5pm
Referee: Jérôme Garcès (France)
TV: RTÉ Two, ITV
Bet: Ireland 7/5 England 8/13 Draw 17/1
Saturday’s RBS 6 Nations finale at Dublin’s Aviva Stadium between Ireland and England will throw those competing outlooks into sharp contrast.
In the home dressing room will be a side capable on its day of beating any team in the world, three of those days in 2016, but equally equipped to turn in the sort of frustrating performances that have led to two championship defeats in the last four games.
The most recent loss came last Friday in Cardiff as Joe Schmidt’s side was outscored three tries to nil by Wales in a 22-9 reverse that ended Ireland’s hopes of regaining the title they had ceded to this weekend’s visitors.
England will arrive in Dublin this Friday to finalise their preparations for the game that could deliver a world-record 19th consecutive tier one Test victory and back-to-back Grand Slams.
They have not lost a game since October 2015 when their World Cup on home soil was brought to a catastrophic end in the penultimate pool game with a loss to Australia.
The final pool game, a routine win over minnows Uruguay, did not provide relief or happiness, rather the end of Stuart Lancaster’s reign as head coach and by the time England played again, the Australian Eddie Jones was at the helm and the red rose began to bloom once more.
The turnaround has been remarkable, with a Six Nations Grand Slam last spring, a clean sweep of the Wallabies down under last summer and a November series which accounted for South Africa and Australia.
Last Saturday’s 61-21 thumping of auld enemies Scotland at Twickenham was win number 18, tying New Zealand’s tier-one record for consecutive victories and securing a repeat Six Nations title with a game to spare.
It has been impressive stuff, Jones taking Lancaster’s carefully assembled squad and adding some snarl to their demeanour and certainty in selection. If England was in school he would be the most improved, an A-plus student. But what of Ireland?
The joy of beating the Springboks in South Africa for the first time last June was tempered by a series loss with defeats in Johannesburg and Port Elizabeth following that famous performance in Cape Town.
While the status accrued by the landmark victory over world champions New Zealand in Chicago last November and the Dublin win over Australia which completed the hat-trick over Southern Hemisphere sides in a calendar year has been eroded by the defeats in Edinburgh and Cardiff over the last six weeks.
So what grade would Ireland’s assistant coach Greg Feek give his side for post-World Cup efforts, compared to England’s top marks?
“We have done some things since then that have never been done before and there have been a few incidences where in games this moment and that moment have changed how it went,” Feek said.
“You’re judged by the scoreline and we have got to be realistic and find out why. If we were losing by huge margins or not putting ourselves in a position to be not only winning but winning well and I think against the All Blacks, we played the three southern hemisphere teams last year and did really, really well.
“So, playing the All Blacks twice and even playing them a second time we all felt we played better playing them the second time. How do you judge yourself?
"You judge yourself on the final score obviously but also your performances and some of our performances have been really good without the W.
“I won’t give us a rating. You guys can do that but we’re reasonably happy and obviously, the Six Nations, the two games we lost, is probably the disappointing thing that has put a lesser shine on.”
Which is why Ireland will go into Saturday’s game merely as spoilers to England’s party rather the title contenders we know they are capable of being.
The one thing that sets Ireland apart from the visitors and gives them hope of upsetting the odds is that they have beaten the All Blacks. England under Jones cannot say that.
Yet one doubts whether they would give up that record run for the privilege.