England destroy Scotland, now history beckons against Ireland
With the Six Nations won, Eddie Jones's side set their sights a second Grand Slam and surpassing New Zealand's record of wins
England thrashed Scotland by a record margin on Saturday to win the Six Nations championship with a match to spare.
After scoring seven tries in their 61-21 victory over the Scots, England equalled New Zealand's Test match record of 18 consecutive wins and next week they can set a new landmark if they beat Ireland in Dublin.
At the start of the tournament most people expected that match to be a Grand Slam decider, but that was before the Irish lost to Scotland on the opening weekend. On Friday night in Cardiff they suffered another defeat, going down 22-9 to an impressive Wales side, and so Ireland's main motivation on Saturday will be to do to England what they did to New Zealand last November and bring their winning streak to an abrupt end.
It will need some performance from Ireland to derail the English juggernaut after a brilliant performance against Scotland underlined their all-round strength. There was a hat-trick of tries for the electric centre Jonathan Joseph, while the forwards displayed their formidable power by helping Billy Vunipola crash over the try-line while scrum-half Danny Care went in for a brace.
England are now just one victory away from beating the All Blacks' record, as well as winning a second successive Grand Slam, something that has never been achieved in the Six Nations era. The last country to win back-to-back Five Nations titles (before the inclusion of Italy in 2000) was France, in 1997 and 1998, while before them England achieved the feat in 1991-92, as well as 1913-14 and 1923-24.
To replicate the achievements of those great sides is what coach Eddie Jones wants his side to strive for in Dublin on Saturday. "We've got a fantastic opportunity," said Jones. "It would mean for the players they've achieved greatness... how many times in your life do you get to be great? It's exciting."
Nonetheless, despite the excitement, Jones said his players would not get carried away this week. "Our focus is purely on Ireland," he stressed. "Ireland, psychologically, are in a very strong position. They're beaten, they're out of the tournament and they love spoiling parties. And the party they'd love to spoil the most is the England party."
Whatever the outcome of Saturday's match in Dublin, England will remain second in the world rankings behind New Zealand, the nation that has dominated rugby for the past decade, winning the World Cup in 2011 and again four years later.
England were humiliatingly dumped out of the 2015 tournament in the group stage, which led to Jones replacing Stuart Lancaster as head coach, and the Australian said he won't be satisfied until England oust the All Blacks as the number one side in the sport. "We're one year into a four-year project [and] we've done reasonably well in the first year," he said.
"We're not beating our chests and saying we're the number-one team in the world, but we aspire to be the number-one team in the world."
England target All Blacks record - can Scotland stop them?
The last time Scotland beat England at Twickenham in the Six Nations was in 1983 and they head south as firm underdogs for Saturday's clash. With England unbeaten since October 2015, the men in white will equal New Zealand's world record winning run of 18 Test matches should they beat Scotland.
Yet neither England coach Eddie Jones nor his Scotland counterpart, Vern Cotter, wished to dwell too much on the significance of equalling the All Blacks' record.
"It hasn't been discussed a lot within the team," said the New Zealand-born Cotter. "The team which kicks off on Saturday has 80 minutes of rugby to focus on - and this team is doing nothing else. It's about the game and that's how our preparation has taken place."
Should Scotland upset the form book and beat England for the first time in the Six Nations since 2008 they will win the Triple Crown (awarded to the Home Nation who beats the other three countries in the tournament). The Scots have only achieved the feat ten times, the last occasion in 1990, and it's a sign of how far they've improved that they are now in contention for the mythical prize.
"We are really looking forward to the contest," said Cotter, who has made just one change to the team which beat Wales a fortnight ago, flanker Hamish Watson replacing the injured John Hardie.
As for England, they make three changes to the XV that struggled to overcome Italy two weeks ago with scrum-half Ben Youngs, centre Jonathan Joseph and wing Jack Nowell the men to return. There was a doubt about the fitness of Owen Farrell on Thursday with the Saracens centre rumoured to have injured himself in training. Asked by reporters for clarification on Farrell's health, Jones said: "He's got a bad leg, so he couldn't finish training".
Predicting that Farrell will be "all right" to face the Scots, Jones explained what had happened: "I think he ran into my dog. My dog was running around and he ran into it."
One player who definitely is fit and raring to go is Billy Vunipola, the number eight who missed the first three matches of the tournament with a knee injury. Having returned to action with his club last weekend, Vunipola is named on the bench, along with brother Mako.
In New Zealand, alarm is growing at the prospect of England beating their 18-match winning streak (established between 2015 and 2016), a feat that would be particularly hard to bear given that the English are coached by an Aussie. Wellington's Dominion Post couldn't resist having a dig at Jones on the eve of the Scotland match, describing him as " an irritable, tetchy figure".
If he's grumpy now, the paper can't help but wonder: "What he will be like when he loses a game?"