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Ireland aim to send CJ Stander off on a high by beating England in Six Nations finale


In keeping with Ireland's roller-coaster Six Nations campaign to date, the last few days have been as hectic off the pitch, as they have been on it.

After Andy Farrell's men got their first win of the campaign with a convincing victory over Italy, Ireland backed up what was a strong performance with another much-needed win in Scotland last weekend.

Back-to-back away wins has set things up nicely ahead of Ireland's return home to the Aviva Stadium on Saturday for a mouth-watering showdown against England to round off their tournament.

The shock news of CJ Stander's intention to retire at the end of the season has put a dampener on the mood this week, as Ireland supporters come to terms with the fact that a stalwart of the team is about to bring the curtain down on his career.

When Stander arrived in Limerick as a 22-year-old in 2012, the South African could barely speak English, but his transformation into a vital player for both club and country has been remarkable. The Munster No 8 has always been a real crowd favourite and that the Irish fans will not be able to bid him a fond farewell inside the stadium will leave a sour taste.

This weekend will be the final time that Stander pulls on the green jersey, but he bows out safe in the knowledge that he has made a hugely positive impact on Irish rugby.

As much as there will be a lot of emotion surrounding the occasion, Ireland must not lose focus on the task at hand because with a resurgent England team arriving in Dublin, they have enough on their plate.

It's fair to say that it has been a bit of a mixed bag for Ireland in this year's Six Nations with two wins and two defeats to their name, which currently has them lying in second place of the table. However, a third victory on the bounce against a very strong England outfit, would allow Ireland to reflect positively on the tournament.

A tricky start on the opening weekend in Cardiff was not helped by Peter O'Mahony's early red card, yet Ireland took a lot of encouragement from the manner that they hung in against a Wales side, who are on the verge of winning another Grand Slam, should they beat France on Saturday.

France have been the talk of the Six Nations, as much for their antics on the field as well as off it, but their class is not in doubt, so although Ireland fell just short against Les Bleus, again, they felt like they learned a lot about themselves from the game. Italy provided ideal opposition to get the show back on the road and Ireland took full advantage with a clinical performance that was much better all-round.

International debuts for Munster scrum-half Craig Casey and Leinster lock Ryan Baird added to what was a positive trip to Rome. Casey and Baird came up through the underage ranks together and that the pair of 21-year-olds got to take to the pitch at the same time alongside one another was also significant. The hugely talented youngsters have very bright futures ahead of them, which should really excite supporters.

Ireland scored some scintillating tries at the Stadio Olimpico, not least Huge Keenan's score off a cracking Garry Ringrose offload. Keenan has built on his impressive breakthrough season and has now made the full-back slot his own. The Leinster man had big boots to fill when Rob Kearney left for Australia and although no one could ever replace that level of class and experience, Keenan has done a fine job of it thus far.

A calming presence in the backfield, the 24-year-old has quickly become a popular member of the Ireland squad as he looks to kick on again. Keenan hasn't been alone in enjoying an outstanding campaign, as Tadhg Beirne and Robbie Henshaw are also in the form of their lives and have firmly established themselves as key men.

Ireland needed another big display against Scotland last weekend and while they delivered for the most part, Farrell will be very mindful that there remains plenty of scope for improvement. Coughing up a 14-point lead was certainly not part of the plan, but Ireland showed a strong resolve to snatch victory thanks to Johnny Sexton's late penalty.

How many times have we seen Sexton pull off heroics like that down through the years? Faced with a tricky kick from out wide and with a swirling breeze, Sexton judged it to perfection as the ball sailed through the posts to hand his side a vital last-gasp win. Much has been said about the 35-year-old's future, yet this was the latest example of why the Leinster and Ireland captain is still a hugely important figure. 

Sexton recently signed a new one-year contract with the IRFU as did Iain Henderson, Cian Healy and Keith Earls, which came as a welcome boost across the board, particularly with Stander opting to retire at the end of the season.

Ireland would love nothing more than to send Stander off on a high and what better way of doing so than beating England at home?

It promises to be a titanic battle and although Ireland will have to plan without the injured Ringrose and James Ryan, they have been working hard to build their squad depth.

Ireland haven't had it all their own way against England recently, but come 4.45pm on Saturday evening, Farrell's side will have an ideal opportunity to set the record straight.

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