6 Nations title can come early for Grand Slam-chasing Irish

Fri, Mar 10, 2023
Other News (AP)

6 Nations title can come early for Grand Slam-chasing Irish

There's a world where Ireland's players are celebrating becoming Six Nations rugby champions on Sunday.

Plenty has to go their way for that to happen.

It's hardly unrealistic, though.

If England or France wins without a bonus point in "Le Crunch" at Twickenham on Saturday, that would allow the Irish to clinch the championship with a round to spare with a bonus-point victory over Scotland at Murrayfield a day later.

The Grand Slam would still be on. And just imagine the expectations that will be foisted on the top-ranked team then ahead of its bid to win the Rugby World Cup for the first time later this year.

For Jonathan Sexton, it's all about "embracing" the challenge.

"Going back a couple of years, we'd lost our first two games and we were fighting for a bit of respect, a bit of pride, whatever," Ireland's captain and flyhalf said. "So it's not always like this. You've got to cherish it. Where else would you rather be? Would you rather be fourth and playing for nothing?

"It's where we want to be. You can't get away from that so it's just about driving home process, driving home performance, driving home the things that matter."

History is on the side of Ireland, which has won 11 of its last 12 matches against Scotland and is the form team in world rugby.

Gaining a bonus-point victory in Edinburgh hasn't been this tough a task for quite some time, however. Sexton described the class of 2023 as the best Scotland team this century. Indeed, the Scots can't be discounted from the Six Nations title race just yet.

Gregor Townsend's team ran over England and Wales in their opening two games before losing a thriller to France two weeks ago.

Scotland starts Sunday's game five points behind Ireland and closes the championship with a home match against Italy. Ireland finishes at home to England.

A win would guarantee Scotland a first Triple Crown - for beating all the home unions in one championship - since the 1990 Five Nations and, whisper it, a decent shot at the title heading into Round 5.

"It is probably the biggest game I'll have played for Scotland," said No. 8 Matt Fagerson, who has won 31 caps since his debut in 2018. "But we aren't looking too far ahead. You can't be thinking about championships or what the permutations are.

"We've got the world No. 1 team coming to Murrayfield and that's all our focus is on. It's managing what they have to bring and what we bring as well."

A number of frontline Ireland players - including Sexton, hooker Dan Sheehan, flanker Peter O'Mahony and scrumhalf Conor Murray - sat out the 34-20 victory over Italy in Rome in Round 3 and they'll return against Scotland. Sexton has been nursing a groin problem but is healthy again.

Lions prop Tadhg Furlong will make his first appearance in this Six Nations after a timely recovery from a calf injury. His backup, Finlay Bealham, sustained a tournament-ending knee injury against Italy. Furlong has not played a game since Dec. 3.

Jack Dempsey will make his first start for Scotland since switching his nationality from Australian last year. He is one of two changes to the team that lost to France, with lock Jonny Gray replacing the suspended Grant Gilchrist to play alongside his brother, Richie.

Fullback Stuart Hogg will win his 100th Scotland cap.

"We back ourselves against anybody in this championship, but especially at home," center Huw Jones said. "We've got a good record at Murrayfield, we make it tough for anyone who comes there. We've improved a lot but we've still not hit our peak, so hopefully over the next two (games) we can get there."



Scotland: Stuart Hogg, Kyle Steyn, Huw Jones, Sione Tuipulotu, Duhan van der Merwe, Finn Russell, Ben White; Jack Dempsey, Jamie Ritchie (captain), Matt Fagerson, Jonny Gray, Richie Gray, Zander Fagerson, George Turner, Pierre Schoeman. Reserves: Fraser Brown, Jamie Bhatti, Simon Berghan, Scott Cummings, Hamish Watson, Ali Price, Blair Kinghorn, Chris Harris.

Ireland: Hugo Keenan, Mack Hansen, Garry Ringrose, Bundee Aki, James Lowe, Jonathan Sexton (captain), Conor Murray; Caelan Doris, Josh van der Flier, Peter O'Mahony, James Ryan, Iain Henderson, Tadhg Furlong, Dan Sheehan, Andrew Porter. Reserves: Ronan Kelleher, Cian Healy, Tom O'Toole, Ryan Baird, Jack Conan, Jamison Gibson-Park, Ross Byrne, Robbie Henshaw.


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