Rugby union: Nothing but best will do for England

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The Independent Online
CLIVE WOODWARD has repeatedly requested that his England side be judged only by the highest available standards, so anything less convincing than a 50-point bullying of Ireland at Twickenham this afternoon should leave the coach and his charges open to a verbal assault of Alf Garnett proportions. Perhaps that realisation led Woodward to trumpet the visitors' chances of turning Five Nations expectation on its head; certainly, he was more upbeat about the Irish yesterday than the Irish had been about themselves.

Spectacularly so, in fact. Twenty-four hours earlier, Warren Gatland, the new Irish coach, had appeared on the verge of catching the first flight back to Dublin. "We lost 46-6 last season and that was at home, so the same could happen this time," he said, descending into a world-weary tone hardly designed to inspire his team into delivering one of their occasional hellfire spectaculars. "We'll do our very best to get close to England, but they're a quality side."

Not much point turning up, then. England have rattled along at an average 37 points a match during the current championship and they need another 32 to surpass the record 141-point aggregate they achieved, partly at Ireland's embarrassed expense, last year. Just the 32? The way Gatland has been telling it this week, they will sail past that marker before you can say "Conor McGuinness".

But Gatland is a New Zealander - an All Black tourist, indeed - and rugby men of that stamp do not lose games in advance. John Mitchell, England's assistant coach, knows Gatland better than most, for in his previous incarnation as a mean-eyed North Island forward, he played something like 100 provincial games alongside him in a feared and formidable Waikato pack. If Woodward was in danger of falling for the kiwi-tinged blarney, Mitchell has successfully disabused him.

"Unless we are absolutely at our best we will lose this game," Woodward pronounced with missionary zeal. "I look at that Irish pack man for man and we would be happy to have many of them in our squad. Therefore, the initial aim is to win this one by whatever means come to hand and I really don't mind the direct route if it brings success. We have to be aware that if they get going up front, we could be in for a nasty surprise."

Woodward knows full well, however, that the Irish forwards can get going all they like and still find themselves impaled on the pointed end of a sharp stick. For all the industrious qualities purveyed by Paul Wallace, Paddy Johns, David Corkery and the inspirational Keith Wood, who must be one of the few Harlequin captains never to have played at Twickenham, it is desperately difficult to win international matches without a back division of at least average ability.

More than one Irish forward has pointed out that the visitors might easily have reached London with three tournament wins nestling in their kitbags rather than three defeats weighing heavily on their minds.

And there is merit in the argument, to be sure; a one-point loss to Scotland was followed by the most glorious of two-point defeats in Paris and had Ireland made anything like the most of their first-half possession against Wales, there could have been only one winner.

Sadly, the Irish backs seem incapable of making the most of anything. Nowhere near quick enough in midfield, their indecision tends to be final on the rare occasions they create half a yard of room for themselves and, as a result, they crave contact rather than space. If all 15 Englishmen were to be sent off this afternoon, the visitors would spend the rest of the game running into the referee.

In the light of a back-line supremacy of vast proportions, Woodward may well be justified in giving Mike Catt a first ever start on the right wing. Eric Elwood, the Irish outside-half, will not hesitate to pepper Bath's resident South African with all manner of high, hanging Garryowens, but as Wood, the Irish captain, said this week: "I toured South Africa with Mike last summer and he's perfectly comfortable in any position. If England can turn Austin Healey into a quality wing, as they clearly have, I've no doubt they can do the same with Mike."

Assuming Jeremy Guscott has committed himself to next year's World Cup, Catt has next to no chance of breaking into the side as an outside centre. The No 10 berth is also becoming log-jammed, what with Paul Grayson's form, Jon Wilkinson's startling emergence as an international outside- half in waiting and Alex King's return to fitness. Suddenly, in the space of a week, it looks like wing or nowhere for England's Mr Versatile.

If only Ireland had access to such a luxury as Catt, who would sleepwalk into their side at outside-half, centre, wing or full-back. Brian Ashton, a connoisseur of back play if ever there was one, turned tail and fled Dublin for Somerset after the first of this season's Five Nations torments and given his passion for ambitious, wide-ranging, perpetual-motion rugby, it remains a surprise that he lasted as long as he did.

ENGLAND v IRELAND

at Twickenham

M Perry Bath 15 C Clarke Terenure

M Catt Bath 14 R Wallace Saracens

W Greenwood Leicester 13 K Maggs Bristol

J Guscott Bath 12 M McCall London Irish

A Healey Leicester 11 D Hickie St Mary's

P Grayson Northampton 10 E Elwood Galwegians

M Dawson Northampton 9 C McGuinness St Mary's

J Leonard Harlequins 1 R Corrigan Greystones

R Cockerill Leicester 2 K Wood Harlequins, capt

D Garforth Leicester 3 P Wallace Saracens

M Johnson Leicester 4 P Johns Saracens

G Archer Newcastle 5 M O'Kelly London Irish

L Dallaglio Wasps, capt 6 D Corkery Bristol

N Back Leicester 7 A Ward Ballynahinch

T Diprose Saracens 8 V Costello St Mary's

Referee: D Bevan (Wales) Kick-off: 2.0 (Sky Sports 2)

Replacements: 16 P de Glanville (Bath); 17 J Wilkinson (Newcastle); 18 S Benton (Gloucester); 19 D Ryan (Newcastle); 20 D Grewcock (Saracens); 21 G Rowntree (Leicester); 22 D West (Leicester).

Replacements: 16 K Keane (Garryowen); 17 D Humphreys (L Irish); 18 B O'Meara (Cork Constitution); 19 P Clohessy (Young Munster); 20 A Clarke (Northampton); 21 M Galwey (Shannon); 22 E Miller (Leicester).

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