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Ireland can end Six Nations campaign on a high, says Furlong

By Nick Purewal

Ireland continue to insist they will gain no motivation from trying to spoil England's Grand Slam party in Dublin on Saturday. Joe Schmidt's players have stuck steadfastly to the message that last week's 22-9 defeat to Wales was the result of "small margins" in the RBS 6 Nations.

But England's 61-21 win over Scotland skewed that perspective, while also teeing up Eddie Jones' men for back-to-back Grand Slams for the first time since 1992, and a record 19th consecutive win.

Tighthead prop Tadhg Furlong is the latest player to reject any notion of Ireland revelling in the prospect of ruining England's big day, insisting Saturday's hosts are more concerned with reasserting their own prowess at the Aviva Stadium.

Asked if Ireland's players will channel their energies into ending England's winning run, Furlong replied: "No. Within the team, within meetings, it hasn't been discussed at all.

"The focus is massively on us and trying to get the most out of the game that we can.

"And I suppose trying to prove to our supporters what it means to us."

Ireland denied England a Grand Slam in Dublin in 2001, Keith Wood bullocking in for a try to spoil the visitors' hopes.

England thrashed Ireland 42-6 to complete a clean sweep two years later, though, just months out from their 2003 World Cup win.

Front-rower Furlong (24) has vague memories of both those encounters, but remains unruffled by the result in either.

"I do remember the little loop play off the back of the maul for Keith Wood to go in," said Furlong.

"For the game two years later I was probably 11 at the time, so it doesn't majorly stick out now."

Ireland have the chance to end a second 18-match winning streak in the space of one season.

Head coach Schmidt's men downed New Zealand on their record-breaking run with the stunning 40-29 triumph over the All Blacks in Chicago in November.

Scrum coach Greg Feek admitted earlier this week that Ireland's players were aware England had the chance to trump New Zealand's record at the end of the autumn series.

But still Ireland remain adamant that will not affect their thinking this weekend. Instead the hosts will focus on the desire to avoid suffering defeats to all three home nations rivals in one championship for the first time since 1998.

Leinster prop Furlong admitted Ireland will be well-placed after facing England to gauge their strengths when matched against back-to-back World champions New Zealand.

The increasingly accomplished tighthead conceded, however, that Jones' England have already reached the same rarefied level as the mighty All Blacks.

"They are two quality teams, there probably are subtle differences in the way they play," said Furlong of England and New Zealand. "England are right up there with New Zealand at the minute, the way they are playing.

"I think they are flying and they have deserved to retain the Six Nations.

"So it's going to be a massive test for us no doubt."

Meanwhile, Joe Schmidt looks set to offer the starting XV who came up short in Cardiff a shot at redemption against England at the Aviva Stadium if they can come through training this morning.

Keith Earls looks set to be retained on the right wing if he can shrug off the groin strain that kept him out of Monday and Tuesday's sessions, while Conor Murray will partner Johnny Sexton at half-back unless he shows any ill-effects of the shoulder injury he suffered against Wales last Friday as Ireland look to finish their campaign on a high.

Jared Payne could come on to the Ireland bench in place of the injured Tommy Bowe in the sole change to the 23 against an English side chasing a world record 19th win in a row.

Payne remains short of match fitness despite playing three times for Ulster in recent weeks after a long lay-off as a result of a kidney injury suffered against Australia in November.

Otherwise, the head coach looks likely to resist calls for change by keeping Peter O'Mahony in reserve and retaining the back-row of CJ Stander, Sean O'Brien and Jamie Heaslip that has started throughout the campaign.

Rob Kearney is set to continue at full-back, with Earls and Simon Zebo on the wings with Garry Ringrose and Robbie Henshaw partnering up in the centre.

Up front, Jack McGrath, Rory Best and Tadhg Furlong will be bolstered by Donnacha Ryan and Devin Toner in the second-row.

Grand Slam-chasing England are likely to stick with the team that destroyed Scotland last weekend, despite Billy Vunipola's availability.

but Zebo says Ireland are fully focused on themselves and avoiding a third defeat in the Six Nations.

"We've lost two games, but we still have a chance to finish in the top half of the table, we're hugely excited about that," the Munster winger said.

"More importantly, we have the opportunity to put in a huge performance for ourselves, our fans and our families.

"We're not looking at where they (England) are and where they've come from - the same for us - we're just focusing on beating them, and if we do that, we'll be in an even better place."

England are likely to stick with the team that destroyed Scotland last weekend, despite Billy Vunipola's availability.

POSSIBLE IRELAND TEAM TO FACE ENGLAND: R Kearney; K Earls, G Ringrose, R Henshaw, S Zebo; J Sexton, C Murray; J McGrath, R Best (capt), T Furlong; D Ryan, D Toner; CJ Stander, S O'Brien, J Heaslip. Replacements: N Scannell, C Healy, J Ryan, I Henderson, P O'Mahony, K Marmion, P Jackson, J Payne.

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