Rugby Union / Five Nations' Focus: Elwood stands ready for the Barnes test: Talk is of halves in Dublin and Paris as the championship contest reaches a conclusion

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The Independent Online
SELF-ASSURED, likes talking, overnight celebrity. Entered team at difficult time but credited with leading revival. Will be closely watched at Lansdowne Road today. Stuart Barnes? Undoubtedly, but the descriptions could just as easily apply to a man called Eric Elwood.

Elwood is the latest Irishman to have been handed the nation's No 10 shirt which, in the last two years, has been passed round the country more often than a Moss Bros wedding suit. Not that he feels uneasy about the precariousness of the appointment. Like Barnes, Elwood is a confident and effusive recruit to the national side, as he showed in a recent Irish television interview by smiling and talking simultaneously for something approaching 10 minutes.

The flow of congratulatory phone calls and cards has continued unabated for Elwood since he kicked four out of four on his debut for Ireland in Cardiff two weeks ago and helped his country to a long overdue victory.

But while a gang of even younger fly-halves (Elwood is 24) continue to pursue him from the ranks of emerging Irish backs, Elwood is about to face probably the best stand-off in the British Isles in his first international appearance at Dublin's Lansdowne Road and only his second in the much-circulated bright green shirt.

Nobody would suggest that Elwood is yet in Barnes's class when it comes to vision and grace, but the notable similarities in demeanour will provide one of the focal points of England's attempt to curtail Ireland's reawakening.

'Stuart Barnes is the man I'll be marking,' Elwood said this week, before realising that he may be surrendering psychological advantage by expressing fear of England's new playmaker. 'But we won't just be singling out Stuart Barnes. The whole side is full of quality players, and they all need special attention.'

Special attention is what Elwood will be receiving from the Irish selectors. These days, one good game against a listless Welsh side hardly earns an Irish stand-off the freedom of Dublin.

Niall Malone, Ralph Keyes, Peter Russell, Derek McAleese and Vincent Cunningham have each failed to establish a hold on the post in the last couple of seasons, while Paul Burke, Alan McGowan and especially David Humphreys are all receiving favourable reviews as possible successors to Elwood should he fail to consolidate his impressive start.

Last week while Barnes was attending the opening day of the Cheltenham Festival, Elwood was helping to keep the year's most hedonistic race meeting lubricated in his role as a sales representative to Irish Distillers in Dublin.

If Elwood was labouring on the supply side, England's stringent fitness regime will have prevented Barnes from indulging himself at the demand end, though his passion for the racing itself was clear in his complaints about England's flight taking off during - during, for heaven's sake - the Gold Cup on Thursday. 'Disgraceful', he called it.

Doubtless, Barnes was aware that there were 5,000 Irish punters in the town and that many of them would be following his route to Lansdowne Road once the Festival was over. 'We're going to play a very expansive game,' Barnes said in a way that left you certain Elwood will face oceanic waves of attack of the kind Wales were incapable of mounting. 'We won't be thinking about the France game (against Wales in Paris). We'll simply be trying to score as many points as possible.'

So Elwood has two formidable opponents. One is Barnes, the other the Irish selectors. A call to Elwood's home late one evening found him anything but swaggering as he re- watched the Wales-Ireland game ('for only the second time, honest'). 'Looking at it now,' Elwood said, 'I've got my doubts about it. I don't know why people have got so excited. We didn't run the ball that much, though our defence was all right. It's something we'll have to work on.'

That said, even Elwood in his first full game could appreciate the succour which Ireland's first win in a dozen games brought to the squad. Nick Popplewell, the prop, cried. The demons retreated a little, and Elwood felt able to talk of 'the expectations, the hope of victories' which had spread through Dublin and beyond as far as Connacht, Elwood's birthplace (in Galway) but not a region famous for producing international rugby players.

As for his own game, Elwood talks of 'being in command' in the No 10 spot without indulging in the kind of self-congratulatory retrospection that could jeopardise his performance this afternoon.

'I was pleased with my game in Wales, but that was on the kicking side of things,' he said. 'I know I've got to raise my game against the English.'

At least the turf beneath his feet will be familiar. Elwood plays for the famous but (relatively) languishing Lansdowne side, who are based at the home of the Irish national team but who perform before virtually deserted grandstands and terraces. 'It's very empty for our club matches,' Elwood said.

Though the two have never played against one another, they are familiar with each other's club form. 'I've seen Stuart Barnes play for Bath, and I must say I always was a fan of his,' Elwood said.

'I also think Rob Andrew is a superb player. He did all the basics right, but Stuart Barnes has brought a new lease of life to the English backs. His case was helped (against Scotland) when Craig Chalmers went off, but you've still got to give him credit for taking his chances.'

Chances which both of them should seize again today.

(Photograph omitted)

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