Murphy's lore poses threat to England

FIVE NATIONS' CHAMPIONSHIP: The distraction of the World Cup offers no excuses for a team expected to overcome the Irish
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Loose talk is dangerous and there has been a lot lately about the World Cup. As much of it has been emanating from England, and not much from Ireland, we are entitled to wonder whether Will Carling's team are as focused on the Five Nations as they shouldbe.

The championship starts today and he assures us they are. The English are possible World Cup winners where the Irish, with the best will in the world, are not, and that would be an excuse of a sort for forward thinking. But the old sporting truism that the best long-term planning involves winning the very next match will never have had more justification than at Lansdowne Road this afternoon.

This is why England might just be more vulnerable than is immediately obvious. Two years ago their minds were also elsewhere - on imminent Lions selection - whereas Ireland's were so focused on the single task of giving England 80 minutes in hell that they not only won but deeply embarrassed their disbelieving visitors as well.

So what about this match's relationship to the World Cup? Does it have one at all? "In that 80 minutes it's irrelevant," Carling acknowledged, but at the same time he warned his players that a failure today along the lines of 1993 would have profound implications. And that - here we go again - means the World Cup.

"People realise there's a lot of competition in the squad and a World Cup that we all hope to go to," he added. "People are very aware of how important this game is. We feel our backs are to the wall every time we come over to Lansdowne Road and we've heard sneaky reports coming back that Ireland are confident. If you look at the bare facts, perhaps they should be."

As England most recently beat Canada 60-19 and Ireland defeated the United States 26-15, this is perverse logic, presumably based more on Ireland's honourable failure in Australia last summer - when England, don't forget, were sharing a series in South Africa - than their performance against the Eagles. Whatever, the idea that England are the outsiders in this two-horse race, even if they did fail over the course and distance last time, is quite absurd.

Which is not to say they will win, only that they should - even if the weather is as filthy-wet as it has been in Dublin most of the week. But, for some reason, Carling cannot agree even with that. "We perform well when we really feel we've been written off, or we feel we're being underrated, or we feel there's a huge challenge for us," he said.

It is true that the Irish are a deal more confident than for years, and that is enough to perturb any Irishman. The new expectancy has been created by the emergence of a group of accomplished young players: Burke, Wood, Foley, Corkery and now, since the tragic withdrawal of Michael Bradley, Hogan. But not now Jonathan Bell, who withdrew last night with a thigh injury and was replaced on the wing by Niall Woods.

This new talent in turn means "boot, bollock and boot", Gerry Murphy's cheery encapsulation of old-time Irish rugby, can no longer in any circumstances suffice. "There are possibilities that we are building towards a half-decent team," Ireland's coach mused. "But in the end it comes to the stage where you have to start delivering. Threatening is one thing, doing is another."

There is a certain contrariness in the Irish choice which may prevent fulfilment of the latter, "doing" part of Murphy's lore. On the one hand, the recall of such a disruptive broth of a boy as Mick Galwey to the pack tends towards "boot, bollock and boot". On the other, Paul Burke, so we are assured, has been introduced at outside-half to get the ball moving.

Burke is confident that he can kick pretty well, too, and if Niall Hogan, another new cap at scrum-half, cannot provide him with the time and space, the enormous England back row will force him to do precisely that. But then the weather forecast suggeststhat he will need to kick however close Rodber, Richards and Clarke come to him.

If Jack Rowell, the England manager, has one doubt more than any other, it concerns the capacity of this back row to act when the going is firm - which means that in World Cup terms Lansdowne Road may well tell him nothing. But more generally the game will once again test England's capacity to mix up their tactics to match both conditions and opposition.

All the talk has been of the new dynamism of England's running game, but Rowell may care to consider 1987, when England arrived in Dublin intending to run the legs off the Irish, found it was raining, then remembered they had no wet-weather plans and lost 17-0. In Dublin, for heaven's sake.

This time Rowell assures us they have Plans A and B, one more than England teams even of the post-1987 golden era have necessarily had. There is the entertaining one and even the manager agrees that the other is the boring "Five Nations" one. Today the team would like to entertain - but would be perfectly happy to bore for England.

Scots look to future, page 45

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