RUGBY Union / Five Nations' Championship: England resigned to reduced expectation: Irish prepare stormy reception for Cooke's pot hunters

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The Independent Online
AFTER the heady brew of two Grand Slams, whatever England achieve against Ireland at Lansdowne Road this afternoon will be small beer. Even winning the Five Nations' Championship now that it can be resolved on points difference rather than simply shared would be no better than mundane, even though no country has ever won it outright three times in a row.

Still, there is a match to be won and if Ireland's win a fortnight ago in Wales, where England need no reminding that they failed, has done nothing else, it has reminded Will Carling's team that they cannot take defeating the Irish for granted, let alone amassing the points required to overtake the French.

'England intend to go all-out for victory', read the headline in yesterday's Irish Times. As a statement of the blindingly obvious, this ranks up there with the assurances John Dawes used to give the Western Mail when he was Wales coach in the 1970s that his team would try hard, but what it meant was that England need to rack up the scores to have any chance of overhauling France's points-difference advantage of eight.

The Five Nations Committee has shown what they expect by taking the new trophy to Paris and as England completed their training at Blackrock yesterday, one could not avoid the feeling that it was not a piece of silverware they greatly coveted.

Even so Geoff Cooke, the England manager, made the right noises when he said it was 'all or nothing' for his players. Actually, he used a somewhat less decorous expression and England really would be in the brown stuff if they failed to bust the Irish defence. To lose one match in a championship may have been unfortunate but to lose another would be appallingly careless.

Which is why, begging Cooke's pardon, the first priority is 'to go all-out for victory'. By the interval the France-Wales result will be known and England can then make their dispositions accordingly. 'If by half- time we have a stranglehold on the game and gain access to the score in Paris, then we can really go for it,' the centre Jeremy Guscott said.

This assumes France beat Wales, a slightly less dangerous assumption than that England will beat Ireland. There is no logical reason to suppose it will not happen but Wales showed what they thought of logic when they played England and Ireland did, too, when they played Wales. Moreover, with Sandy MacNeill refereeing the Irish can expect every opportunity to turn England's disappointing line-out into a shambles.

There is a difference, though, between the England of March and that of February. They set out this season hoping to play their old-style rugby even under new laws and the realisation that this would not work took too long. In the end, by introducing Stuart Barnes and revamping strategy and tactics - a courageous decision in mid-season - they worked out a new way forward in which the bludgeon was at last subordinated to the rapier.

England are better as a result, though the lack of a pacy loose forward to assist continuity, the failure to deliver consistent line-out possession and an uncharacteristic propensity to concede penalties mean their rugby is short of total conviction. 'They are very strong but like any side they have areas of vulnerability,' Gerry Murphy, the Ireland coach, said. 'The trouble is some sides - and England are one - disguise their vulnerability better than others.'

Under Murphy's benign, rather cerebral tutelage, Ireland have progressed a long way from the record defeat by Australia in November and, even worse, their anaemic performance in Scotland when critics justifiably wondered if they would ever again win a match against major international opposition.

It is no exaggeration to call this a triumph for Murphy, who became coach only after an agonised month when the Irish Rugby Football Union was looking for someone - anyone - else. He still does not expect to be reappointed for next season. 'Put it this way: I'm not hanging out the bunting,' he said.

Victory over Wales was as important to Ireland as victory over England was to Wales, and ever since Murphy has warned against reacting, or rather overreacting, in the way the Welsh did. 'After our debacle at Murrayfield, the most gratifying thing is the way we have steadily moved on,' Murphy said.

'People laughed after the French game when I said we could have beaten France if we had taken our chances in the first half, but it was true none the less. Then we did go and beat Wales. Against England we will have to go out and make things happen.'

So, as they bid farewell to Webb, Dooley and Winterbottom, England can expect a stormy passage; hence Carling's tact and caution yesterday. His side may be 6-1 on favourites but they will have to do more than simply turn up at Lansdowne Road. 'It would be an insult to the Irish to talk about scoring lots of points,' the captain said. 'We have a hell of a job just to beat them.'

----------------------------------------------------------------- IRELAND V ENGLAND (At Lansdowne Road) ----------------------------------------------------------------- C Clarke. . . .Terenure College 15 J Webb . . . . Bath R Wallace . . .Garryowen 14 T Underwood . .Leicester V Cunningham . St Mary's College 13 W Carling . . .Harlequins, capt P Danaher . . .Garryowen 12 J Guscott . . .Bath S Geoghegan . .London Irish 11 R Underwood . .Leicester E Elwood . . . Lansdowne 10 S Barnes . . . Bath M Bradley . . .Constitution, capt 9 D Morris . . . Orrell N Popplewell . Greystones 1 J Leonard . . .Harlequins T Kingston . . Dolphin 2 B Moore . . . .Harlequins P Clohessy . . Young Munster 3 J Probyn . . . Wasps P Johns . . . .Dungannon 4 M Bayfield . . Northampton M Galwey . . . Shannon 5 W Dooley . . . Preston Grasshoppers P O'Hara . . . Constitution 6 M Teague . . . Moseley B Robinson . . London Irish 8 B Clarke. . . .Bath D McBride . . .Malone 7 P Winterbottom Harlequins ----------------------------------------------------------------- Replacements: 16 B Glennon (Lansdowne), 17 N Malone (London Irish), 18 R Saunders (London Irish), 19 N Francis (Blackrock College), 20 P McCarthy (Constitution), 21 J Murphy (Greystones).

Replacements: 16 P de Glanville (Bath), 17 R Andrew (Wasps), 18 S Bates (Wasps), 19 V Ubogu (Bath), 20 J Olver (Northampton), 21 T Rodber (Northampton). Referee: A MacNeill (Australia). Kick-off 2.45. -----------------------------------------------------------------

Five Nations focus, pages 52 and 53

(Photograph omitted)