Rugby: Rodber must take control for England

FIVE NATIONS' CHAMPIONSHIP
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The Independent Online
The kitchen-sink theory of rugby pays dividends only when key opponents start washing their hands of all responsibility. If Jack Rowell, the England coach, has spent the last five days warning his players what to expect when they square up to an increasingly positive Irish side here this afternoon, it is a safe bet that he has concentrated most of his attention on two players who already know the score.

If ever there was a time for Jason Leonard, the Harlequins prop, and Tim Rodber, the Northampton No 8, to stand up and be counted amid the flying crockery, this is it. Together with Martin Johnson, their equally influential comrade in the second row, they have first-hand experience of the Emerald Isle furies and given the fact that Lansdowne Road is virgin territory for two-thirds of today's England line-up, that makes them central to Rowell's strategy.

Leonard's role has been a matter of public debate all week. Rowell asked his pack leader to address the squad when it convened on Tuesday: in much the same way as Will Carling gave a special insight on the psychology of playing the Scots a fortnight back, the long-serving Quins player's conclusive front-row performance in Dublin two years ago gave him added authority in the build-up to the latest Five Nations encounter. Certainly, his individual contest with Nick Popplewell, who means something very similar to the Irish in terms of expertise and know-how, will be of considerable significance.

Yet it is Rodber who needs to deliver the biggest game of all. His most illustrious predecessor in the middle of the England back row, Dean Richards, was largely responsible for the two victories in Ireland this decade - the last 20 minutes he turned in at Lansdowne Road during the Grand Slam campaign of 1991 has a secure place in the annals - and it has not escaped anyone's notice that Rodber's direct rival this afternoon is the man Leicester supporters have christened the "new Deano".

Eric Miller, just 21 but armed with the cool brain and the close-quarter nous of the most battle-hardened veteran, is on such a hot streak that his opponents tend to finish games with first-degree burns. Rather like Richards, he has an uncanny ability to control the dynamics of the most torrid forward exchanges. Unlike Richards, he also possesses a wide game; as Les Cusworth, England's assistant coach and a Leicester man from head to toe, said yesterday: "He really is one hell of a talent."

A serious test for Rodber, then, made all the more difficult by the morale- sapping criticism he has been forced to endure this week. Both Richards and Peter Winterbottom, outstanding England loose forwards of the immediate past, have questioned the wisdom of picking the Northampton captain ahead of Ben Clarke in a revamped back row and since neither man could be fairly described as a rent-a-quote merchant, the barbs will have found their mark.

At least Rowell, who watched Rodber produce the goods here two years ago when, as England's blind-side flanker, he took the fight to the Irish with muscular effect, is in no doubt that he has the right man. "Tim gives us control at the back of the scrum, he is strong enough in possession to allow others to play off him and he gives us a very potent option at the lineout, which is essential," the coach said. "The way I see it, we have the right balance."

England are fully aware of the need to grab the game by the scruff of the neck. In Rowell's words, the approach will be to "absorb and impose", but Phil de Glanville, his captain, put it more bluntly this week when he said: "We know all about the Irish in the first 20 minutes, when their endeavour is at its height and the storm is there to be weathered. There is no question of it being anything other than fierce, but equally there is no question of us sitting back and waiting for things to happen. If we don't want to find ourselves points down, we'll have to take our game to them."

De Glanville is convinced that Eric Elwood, the Irish outside-half, will open proceedings with an aerial bombardment aimed not so much at Tim Stimpson, who is a rock under the high ball, but at the more vulnerable wings, Tony Underwood and Jon Sleightholme. "Our back three accept that they face a test, the like of which they will not have encountered before. They've been practising high takes all week, but it's always more difficult to handle this sort of assault in a game situation and it's up to each and every one of us to get back there and support them.

"The whole match will be a massive physical confrontation. The Irish have no frailties in that department - from one to 15, they will threaten us physically - so I am looking for control, discipline and total commitment."

If De Glanville does not receive all that and more from his players, England will undoubtedly be forced to swallow a repeat dose of 1993, when they were blown to all points of the compass by an Irish side that redefined the meaning of the word "rampant". But the flurry of tries in the final quarter of the match against Scotland eased many of the terrors circulating around an inexperienced England camp and provided the main men do their stuff in the eye of the storm, the kitchen sink should miss its target.

A female punter has wagered pounds 46,000, thought to be the largest amount ever staked on a rugby match, on England defeating Ireland. The same woman successfully staked pounds 18,000 on England beating Scotland a fortnight ago and stands to collect over pounds 15,000 if her side win today at odds of 1- 3.

Five Nations table

P W D L F A Pts

England 1 1 0 0 41 13 2

France 1 1 0 0 32 15 2

Wales 2 1 0 1 59 45 2

Ireland 2 1 0 1 41 57 2

Scotland 2 0 0 2 32 75 0

Remaining fixtures

Today: Ireland v England (Lansdowne Road); France v Wales (Parc des Princes).

1 March: England v France (Twickenham); Scotland v Ireland (Murrayfield).

15 March: Wales v England (Cardiff Arms Park); France v Scotland (Parc des Princes).

IRELAND v ENGLAND

at Lansdowne Road, Dublin

J Staples Harlequins, capt 15 T Stimpson Newcastle

D Hickie St Mary's 14 J Sleightholme Bath

J Bell Northampton 13 W Carling Harlequins

M Field Malone 12 P De Glanville Bath, capt

J Topping Ballymena 11 T Underwood Newcastle

E Elwood Lansdowne 10 P Grayson Northampton

N Hogan Bristol 9 A Gomarsall Wasps

N Popplewell Newcastle 1 G Rowntree Leicester

R Nesdale Newcastle 2 M Regan Bristol

P Wallace Saracens 3 J Leonard Harlequins

P Johns Saracens 4 M Johnson Leicester

J Davidson London Irish 5 S Shaw Bristol

D Corkery Bristol 6 L Dallaglio Wasps

E Miller Leicester 8 T Rodber Northampton

D McBride Malone 7 R Hill Saracens

Referee: C Hawke (New Zealand). Kick-off: 3.0 (BBC1).

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