|Six Nations final weekend|
|Italy v Scotland (12:30 GMT) – 5 live sports extra, BBC Radio Scotland, live text|
|England v Ireland (14:45 GMT) – 5 live, live text|
|Wales v France (17:00 GMT) – BBC One, 5 live sports extra, BBC Radio Wales, BBC Radio Cymru, live text|
Ireland can complete a Grand Slam for only the third time in their history, but must overcome reigning champions England on their own ground on Saturday to claim a Six Nations clean sweep.
If they do so, England’s World Cup winning scrum-half Matt Dawson believes it is an achievement that sits narrowly behind winning the World Cup.
“Grand Slams are so rare and so difficult to achieve with form, fitness, the bounce of the ball, the vagaries of the referee,” said the former Lions scrum-half.
“To come through, winning some big, big games, it would be just a smidge below winning a World Cup.”
Ireland’s victory over Scotland in Dublin last weekend wrapped up the Six Nations title and moved Joe Schmidt’s side above their final-round opponents into second place in the world rankings.
But with the World Cup in Japan only 18 months away, Saturday’s game is set to be a key test of their credentials for the tournament.
- Henderson returns for Ireland
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“If they don’t win the Grand Slam, this tournament won’t tell us anything new about Ireland,” BBC rugby reporter Chris Jones told 5 live’s Rugby Union Weekly podcast.
“They will have won their three home games, beaten France away via the last kick of the game and lost to England at Twickenham.
“If they want to set the bar high and go to Japan as legitimate contenders, they need a Grand Slam to hang their hat on. That is what makes their season.
“If they lose, it will show they don’t have that consistency of winning away from home – that is still not a great tournament for Ireland.”
Ireland coach Schmidt agrees.
The New Zealander admitted his preparations for the fixture had been fuelled as much by the fear of defeat as the prospect of following in the footsteps of Ireland’s successes in 1948 and 2009.
Schmidt’s Ireland side denied England their own Grand Slam 12 months ago with a 13-9 win in Dublin on the tournament’s final weekend.
“I’d be more motivated and scared by that than thinking about how fantastic it would be,” said Schmidt about the possibility of England exacting revenge in a similar situation this year.
“There are times where you inevitably imagine the worst-case scenario. Worst-case scenario is that England hit the ground running and they actually win with a bit to spare.
“It would be a crushing way for us to finish a year of being unbeaten.”
England shuffle pack in bid for face-saving victory
England came into the tournament hunting their own piece of history in the shape of an unprecedented third successive outright title.
But, defeat to Ireland would be their third successive loss and, depending on other results, could consign them to a fifth-place finish.
After just one loss in the previous 25 Tests before their reverse against Scotland, and his own apology earlier this week for offensive comments he made last year about Ireland and Wales, it is the most difficult period of the Australian’s two-year stint so far.
“Without a doubt this is my testing time here,” he admitted.
“It’s the best time in rugby, when you are under the pump and you have got to produce it. And the team feels the same way.”
Jones has made seven personnel changes and three positional switches in an attempt to rediscover his side’s form, with fly-half George Ford among the high-profile figures relegated to the replacements.
Gatland aims to sign off with second and style
Victory at home to France would likely secure a second-place finish for Wales and coach Warren Gatland has picked the experienced Dan Biggar as the man to guide his team home from fly-half.
The 28-year-old, who will swap Ospreys for Northampton at the end of the season, has 61 caps. His rivals for the number 10 shirt, Gareth Anscombe and Rhys Patchell, have a total of 23 between them.
It was Biggar who started last year’s encounter, which was settled in France’s favour by a 100th-minute converted try from Damien Chouly at the end of an extraordinary 20 minutes of added time.
‘We don’t want to be nearly men’
Scotland fly-half Finn Russell says his side need to deliver on a more regular basis despite wins over Ireland, Wales, Australia, France and England in the past 14 months.
“We’re building. ‘The nearly men’ isn’t the name we want,” Russell said.
- Ford dropped as England ring changes
- Preview and key stats: England v Ireland
- Listen: The Matt Dawson Rugby Show
- Jones speaks to the Rugby Union Weekly podcast
Saturday gives Gregor Townsend’s side the chance to improve away form that lags well behind their performances at Murrayfield when they travel to Rome.
Italy are closing in on two unwanted landmarks. Defeat to the Scots would take them to 17 successive defeats in the tournament – equalling France’s record for the tournament set almost 100 years ago.
Meanwhile captain Sergio Parisse could become the first player to lose 100 Tests.