James Lawton: Beware emerald eruption that will entomb England in the past

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The Independent Online

If you were English here last night, the best bet, by some distance, was to find a snug little bar out of the wind tearing in from the Irish Sea and talk about anything except rugby. The real meaning of James Joyce's Ulysses maybe, or the decline of the Celtic Tiger economy, (no, perhaps not that), anything, though, but rugby. It is, after all, the game England appear to have forgotten how to play, at least in that serious, armour-clanking fashion which won the World Cup in 2003.

If you say that at least England had that – and throw in the fact that unlike their hosts today, they do not have to go back nearly a quarter of a century to their last Nations title – you are likely to elicit at best a sigh and the point that it is essential to live in the moment and not the misty past.

The trouble is, of course, that England, despite the improved vigour, at least, of their effort in Cardiff a fortnight ago, right now do not really have anything much but a past.

For the present they operate in a void, a reality hardly dispersed by the claim by Toby Flood, the latest fly-half to mark the time before Danny Cipriani is adjudged to have served proper penance for not arriving as a ready-made combination of Barry John and Daniel Carter, that he is ready to carry the banner of a new England.

Flood is a splendidly honest competitor but unfortunately his ambition is somewhat clouded by a problem that can be encapsulated in two words: "Ronan O'Gara".

O'Gara, heaven knows, has had his edgy, problematic days but now, a week away from his 32nd birthday, the San Diego-born Munster general is beginning to look, finally, the made man. He is expected to kick England into something close to a daze this early evening – a situation which the captain Brian O'Driscoll, another Irishman who seems to believe, in his brooding, stop-the-world-I-want-to-get-off kind of way, that his time may have come, is expected to exploit with some relish.

Ireland, for whom Rob Kearney is also likely to produce a major performance at full-back that could further strengthen his claims to a place in the Lions squad, are doggedly refusing to talk themselves up. However, the consensus is that O'Driscoll, particularly, has never been so hell-bent on finally writing a championship-winning chapter into all the years of unfulfilled promise.

After a recent tirade against those he believed were harassing him and his actress girlfriend, O'Driscoll concluded his brief break from cover by suggesting to Rugby World that a major lesson had been learnt in the catastrophe of Ireland's World Cup effort in 2007. Said O'Driscoll: "Before the World Cup we said openly that we thought we could get to the semi-final or even the final but we just made life difficult for ourselves talking that way. There is a belief behind closed doors but we're happy to keep quiet about it now."

Is this the lull before the emerald eruption? It is certainly the current of opinion flowing here through the hours before a match in which the Irish believe they can make an unanswerable case for their right to be favourites to take over the leadership of European rugby. Irish confidence was this week further augmented by the statement of the Italy coach, Nick Mallet, that the game could only be won by England with massive cooperation from the home team.

"It is Ireland's to lose," said Mallett, who proved that he knows quite a bit of which he speaks at Twickenham a few weeks ago when, out of a clear blue Italian sky, he plucked the idea of playing the superb flanker Mauro Bergamasco at scrum-half. "We played our goalkeeper at centre-forward," said a mournful Italian later. However, Ireland's coach Declan Kidney is the width of the Curragh away from such desperation.

He knows he has an edge in almost every corner of the field, a harsh reality for England which, extraordinarily, has hardly brightened in any serious way since Brian Ashton's team were ransacked here two years ago, a slaughter so profound that you could probably have picked pretty much your own odds for an intervening English appearance in the World Cup final.

Here today, surely, the fear for England must be that once again we will have painful evidence of the extent of the illusion created by that unlikely date in Paris 16 months ago against a South African team which ran up 30 unanswered points in a group game.

Still you can find Englishmen in Dublin who believe that the flag of recovery was indeed raised in the Millennium Stadium two weeks ago, and that another forward stride will be taken when the dusk comes to Croke Park.

A point of debate, you might say. Or better to remember the good days? Maybe the one, six years ago, when Lawrence Dallagio bellowed the national anthem as though his lungs were about to burst and England captain Martin Johnson brusquely told the officials that his team would not move an inch, not even in the ceremonials involving Irish president Mary McAleese. That was the prelude to the most ruthless destruction, one that still lingers in the Irish rugby psyche, for a few more hours at least. On reflection, maybe the mystery of Joyce is the better, certainly the safer bet.

Benitez's survival is cause for celebration

However exasperating, and sometimes frankly confusing, the behaviour of Rafa Benitez, he is a first- rank football man who has won the game's greatest prizes. For this reason alone, it is surely a matter of celebration that he, rather than chief executive Rick Parry, survived the hand-to-hand battle that is fought so frequently in modern football.

The affairs of Liverpool are such a parody of how a top club should be run, it is no doubt difficult to pronounce too confidently on them. However, in all the chaos Benitez surely was making a vital point. It is that football men, within their budget, must decide on football matters.

Prior fails to impress as he drops everything for baby trip

There's not much fun in branding yourself a recidivist dinosaur, but, who knows, maybe I'm not alone in believing it was wrong for Matt Prior, England's No 1 wicketkeeper, to fly home from the Caribbean for a visit to the maternity ward.

Yes, it is common practice. Michael Vaughan, former captain, was so impatient for the happy moment that he left the field of Test match play, and it is now being spoken of as nothing less than a right.

All in all, maybe there might have been a case for biting your tongue, given the weight of the convention, if it had not been so enthusiastically endorsed by Prior's fellow wicketkeeper Paul Nixon.

Nixon declared that really it wasn't an issue. The family always came before cricket. Except perhaps when the future of the family, its aspirations for a good life, depended directly on the game which, unlike most vocations or trades, can apparently be put aside so routinely.

Nixon went on to say: "I think important life issues come first. The family always comes first in my view and that is certainly the policy in Leicestershire and no doubt Andy Flower [the acting England coach] wanted Matt to be back to see his new baby. That's first and foremost in his mind, which is only right.

"Cricket should be second in this situation. We've got Tim Ambrose out there. Andy Strauss has done a bit of keeping before and is not the worst with the gloves."

Oh well, that's fine, then. The captain can put aside his other cares and take a stint behind the stumps.

Not that this should intrude on family life, I'm sure we will be told, but the fact is Matt Prior went to the West Indies largely because, on top of his wicketkeeping ability, he is a more than passable Test batsman. His understudy Ambrose is much less proficient with the bat, which was something of a problem when the team for the fourth Test was selected. With Andrew Flintoff out injured and Steve Harmison deemed unplayable, Prior's availability would have enabled England to pick an extra bowler, a crying need in the opinion of most experts.

All of this, though, should probably be discounted because cricketers, unlike soldiers and doctors, nurses and firefighters and travelling salesmen and most other members of the workforce, can pick those moments when they are dedicated professionals facing a demanding challenge that has hugely benefited their lives and those of their families. First of all, and always, they are family men. It is a non-issue. Isn't that wonderful, even utopian, for them?