Rugby Union: Cooke prepares new generation's game: Five Nations' Championship: England's formidable record at Twickenham can inspire their young bucks against Ireland's slow hands

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THE HARDEST trick of international management and selection is to find a new great side to succeed an old one and once England have played Ireland at Twickenham this afternoon it will be clearer whether Geoff Cooke is pulling it off.

In this scheme of things the Irish are almost incidental, since it is next year's World Cup that really exercises the England manager. It is by May 1995 as opposed to February 1994 that he wants his new generation to be ready and able to take on the world.

But whatever the doubts caused by a lucky - one might say flukey - escape from Murrayfield, Cooke knows that he has made a more than decent start to the uncomfortably wholesale change caused by the departure of the Winterbottom / Dooley generation.

This has partly been because he has had no alternative but to seek alternatives. 'We always knew it was going to be that sort of year but it has happened to a bigger extent than we anticipated,' Cooke said yesterday after England had concluded their preparation.

Never in his six years as manager have Cooke's England sides been so disrupted by injury, a run of unaccustomed ill-fortune which continued this week when Ben Clarke was replaced in the back row by a new cap, Steve Ojomoh.

The consequence of all this is that England go in against Ireland with youthful vigour as their prized asset, whereas as lately as last season it was the vast experience of their team that underpinned their Grand Slam ambitions. This metamorphosis is so striking that Brian Moore (47) has almost as many caps as the rest of today's pack put together, and of the other seven Jason Leonard has 27.

'People forget how young and inexperienced this side is,' Will Carling, the captain, said. 'There is no lack of motivation for these guys, whereas for the old team it was harder and harder.' Certainly there is none of the been-there- done-that cynicism which even Carling admits affected the old boys' attitude once they had lost to Wales a year ago.

Young and inexperienced they may be but it is now the cross any England team have to bear that winning is demanded, rather than hoped for, by a presumptuous public. This is one reason Twickenham has become so much more intimidating for visiting sides, even the All Blacks who were beaten there in November: at last people have something to shout about.

'In the mid-Eighties people didn't expect to come to Twickenham and see England win,' Carling said. 'It was almost like a pleasant surprise and therefore the atmosphere wasn't great. Now people do expect to see England win at Twickenham and also expect to see some fairly decent rugby.'

Today should be the day. Ireland have not won at HQ since a famous day in 1982; none of the other championship countries has won there since Wales in 1988; none of the other home countries has even finished within a single score since the Scots drew in 1989.

The Irish have copped the worst beatings of the lot and, whatever England's try-scoring trouble,

Ireland's are every bit as bad. That narrow defeat by Wales a fortnight ago made the upset win over England last March seem like ancient history.

This, though, is Twickenham not Dublin and you cannot help thinking today is one of those occasions when a side know in advance that the worst is in store. Thus there seemed a plaintive air about Michael Bradley, the Irish captain, when he said: 'The one positive factor to emerge from the Welsh game is that we created chances but didn't take them. Now if we can create similar scoring opportunities against England I'd be quite confident that this team would be able to put one or two of them away.'

Bradley, with the lethargy and inaccuracy of his scrum-half's pass, has been pilloried back home as central to the problem, the fact that he is the son-in-law of the Ireland manager, Noel Murphy, making him the easiest of targets. But in the wake of the Welsh match the critical focus has shifted to the hitherto untouchable, Eric Elwood, who was the saviour of Irish rugby when England took their beating 11 months ago.

Not only does Bradley have slow hands but so does his half-back partner and when you add Philip Danaher's slow hands at inside centre, it is small wonder that the threat posed by the undeniably dangerous Simon Geoghegan out on the wing has been practically nil, because he never receives the ball quickly enough.

What is certain is that England's raw but supremely fit back row will find it unusually comfortable to defend against this sort of hesitant, low-skill midfield attack. They should also find it easier to get to Bradley and Elwood than they did to Gary Armstrong and Gregor Townsend at Murrayfield.

Which is why the best option for the Irish is to kick, high in the air to test whether England are any better at defending the garryowen than they were in Scotland and towards the corners to place pressure on an occasionally suspect back-three defence.

It will not be pretty and neither will their defensive system, whose efficacy could well depend on where the offside line is drawn. England are not unhappy that it is Patrick Thomas rather than Joel Dume who is now handling the match but nothing will ever eradicate their Anglo-Saxon suspicion of French refereeing eccentricities. Anyway, with a name like his, Paddy Thomas could almost feel at home among the green shirts.