Friday, February 26, 2010

Game Preview: England vs Ireland

Grand Slam champions Ireland sweep into Twickenham on Saturday with their reputation and unbeaten record of 2009 in tatters.

Heading so confidently into 2010 after a victory over South Africa and the draw with Australia last November, Ireland finally went off the rails in Paris a fortnight ago. The 33-10 defeat was described as 'demoralising' by a couple, a 'reality' by a couple of others and 'a kick up the ass' by Gordon D'Arcy.

Moreover, the discipline is ebbing too. Cian Healy's yellow card was the costliest of all the mistakes the Irish made in Paris and was just plain stupid. Jerry Flannery's kick at Alexis Palisson was worse than stupid. By the end, despite the consolation try from David Wallace, Ireland looked tired, down and out and utterly devoid of inspiration. They will have welcomed having a fortnight off to prepare for England at HQ.

England's ship is sailing in waters no calmer. Impressive against Wales, the lack of anything resembling an attacking strategy against Italy has come in for fierce criticism. Even Jonny Wilkinson is being told he is no good any more. What's that all about?

English rugby fans have become punishingly demanding the longer their drought goes on. It's not enough just to win any more. Seven years is long enough. There must be a Six Nations title, or a Grand Slam run, or a dominant victory, or... something, anything to make England believe all is well and right again.

The match is, in fact, leaning towards being between one team whose fans are too critical, and another whose fans are presenting an air of blind loyalty.

You have to look critically at Ireland now, as must Declan Kidney. Taking a team that had yearned for a Grand Slam for so long to their holy grail is one thing, but the next step is to develop and keep things fresh. This has not been done. Both against France and, perhaps more pertinently, Italy, Ireland looked stale and unimaginative.

Italy in particular should have been finished off cleanly, but Ireland just could not break the shackles. The French sports model found an extra gear almost at will in Paris, Ireland's machine looked more like a clunky diesel engine at times.

England's has rarely looked like anything else for a couple of years now, but it's not supposed to. The management and players make unashamed declarations that they are not there to win pretty. While this squad is being forged, results are all that matter - it's what confidence is built on.

That would be all very well if this were a bunch of fledgelings, but it's not. This is hardly a young bunch of promising players being brought on with a view to something special, this is a well-hardened tribe being hemmed in by stifling tactics. On the rare occasions England ran the ball against Italy, they actually looked pretty good - certainly as though they knew what they were about.

As the French showed, that is the way around Ireland. You find a way to match them up front and then it's the flourishes. England have the former, if they can find the latter, they are still on course for that Grand Slam, critics or not.

Ones to watch:

For England: Riki Flutey looked to be the man most likely to spark something on that flat Valentine's Day in Rome. Ireland presents a different challenge, but assuming he can make another couple of breaks, will he have someone running off him this time?

For Ireland: Cian Healy did his side no favours with a yellow card against France, but was a king of the scrum against Martin Castrogiovanni as Ireland rumbled to victory in the opener. Ireland need the former in a match they have to get on top in at the set piece to stifle their opposition.

Head to head: Jonny v Jonny is a battle of two fly-halves in vastly differing stages of their careers. Jonny Sexton is Ireland's golden boy in many eyes, the man to slip into the mantle of the waning ROG and steer Ireland's backs to their former fluency. Jonny Wilkinson was once England's golden boy, but now the sheen is off. Some say he was fool's gold, others say that those in charge of him are currently the fools. Either way, more is expected of the World Cup winner, who holds 72 more Test caps than his counterpart. Saturday will come the test of whether the powers are on the wane or not.

Recent results:

2009: Ireland won 14-13 at Croke Park
2008: England won 33-10 at Twickenham
2007: Ireland won 43-13 at Croke Park
2006: Ireland won 28-24 at Twickenham
2005: Ireland won 19-13 at Lansdowne Road
2004: Ireland won 19-13 at Twickenham
2003: England won 42-6 at Lansdowne Road
2002: England won 45-11 at Twickenham
2001: Ireland won 20-14 at Lansdowne Road
2000: England won 50-18 at Twickenham

Prediction: We have a sneaking feeling that Ireland are on the wane and that England's belligerence might exploit this. England by three.

The teams:

England: 15 Delon Armitage, 14 Mark Cueto, 13 Mathew Tait, 12 Riki Flutey, 11 Ugo Monye, 10 Jonny Wilkinson, 9 Danny Care, 8 Nick Easter, 7 Lewis Moody, 6 James Haskell, 5 Steve Borthwick, 4 Simon Shaw, 3 Dan Cole, 2 Dylan Hartley, 1 Tim Payne
Replacements: 16 Lee Mears, 17 David Wilson, 18 Louis Deacon, 19 Joe Worsley 20 Paul Hodgson, 21 Toby Flood, 22 Ben Foden.

Ireland: 15 Geordan Murphy, 14 Tommy Bowe, 13 Brian O'Driscoll, 12 Gordon D'Arcy, 11 Keith Earls, 10 Jonathan Sexton, 9 Tomas O'Leary, 8 Jamie Heaslip, 7 David Wallace, 6 Stephen Ferris, 5 Paul O'Connell, 4 Donncha O'Callaghan, 3 John Hayes, 2 Rory Best, 1 Cian Healy
Replacements: 16 Sean Cronin, 17 Tony Buckley, 18 Leo Cullen, 19 Shane Jennings , 20 Eoin Reddan, 21 Ronan O'Gara, 22 Andrew Trimble

Date: Saturday, February 27
Venue: Twickenham
Kick-off: 16.00 GMT
Weather: Dry, breezy, 8°C
Referee: Mark Lawrence (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Christophe Berdos (France), David Changleng (Scotland)
Television match official: Carlo Damasco (Italy)

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