This is the first of the really big games - a defining moment for England in World Cup year. Sometimes, it is possible to single out a fixture months in advance and say: "That is the game by which we must measure ourselves. It will tell us exactly how far we have come, and how far we have left to travel." This evening's contest with Ireland at Croke Park fits this category.
When I was head coach, I identified it as a watershed for the England side. I'm sure the current coaching team see it the same way and, for this reason alone, it will be an electrifying occasion for everyone who yearns to see the team back at the top of the international tree.
This is about far more than a simple judgement call on England's state of health as they move towards the really serious business of the year - the World Cup in France in September. The Croke Park factor took the Six Nations Championship into a new dimension when Ireland met the French in the last round of matches, and I'm well aware that an English presence on that particular patch of turf will up the ante even more. In addition, we have an Irish team long on talent and high on ambition, despite their narrow defeat 13 days ago.
I suffered my share of rough moments and crushing disappointments against Ireland during my time at the sharp end, but despite that - perhaps because of it - I have a good deal of admiration for the way they have grown as a Test unit. Yet I make no apologies for viewing this game from England's perspective.
Nine months or so ago, when I brought Brian Ashton, John Wells and Mike Ford into a new-look coaching set-up, we all talked about the mid-point of this Six Nations as a crucially important juncture. We felt it would take that long for things to gel together, for the true mood and ethos of the team to be established. We knew the autumn programme would be tough, but also appreciated that this was balanced by the fact that the opening matches in this tournament - home games with Scotland and Italy - were exactly what we'd have chosen for ourselves.
The Ireland fixture stood there almost in isolation, like a high peak: a massive match with blank weekends either side of it. This is a hugely significant staging post on England's road to the World Cup, and everyone in the camp recognises it.
O'Gara is central
So we arrive at the million-dollar question: how do England beat Ireland for the first time since 2003 and accelerate towards the concluding Six Nations games with France and Wales? The planning should have started with an acknowledgement that Ronan O'Gara, the Irish outside-half, has the best tactical kicking game in world rugby. Together with Eddie O'Sullivan, his national coach, he has developed something very special.
He knows precisely how and when to turn a team and force them on to the back foot, and he'll be acutely aware that England have a rookie full-back in Olly Morgan. Olly will have to be alive to the threat; so too, of course, will David Strettle on his debut.
Losing Jason Robinson to injury is a blow - experience counts for so much at this level - so Josh Lewsey, the one seasoned Test player in the back three, has a big role to perform in talking his colleagues through proceedings. O'Gara may well kick a fair bit to Josh, working on the theory that it won't get kicked back at him too damagingly. He will certainly kick to the two youngsters.
To stop O'Gara running the show, the whole of England's back three will have to be spot on with their positioning. Every bit as important, and probably more so, will be the performance of Phil Vickery and his pack. The one sure way of clipping O'Gara's wings is to put him under some pressure of his own. If the England forwards can stick it to the Irish at the set pieces and restrict them to a diet of slow, poor-quality possession, the likes of Magnus Lund and Harry Ellis can get in O'Gara's face and make his life a misery.
Farrell's biggest test
Inside O'Gara, the Irish have forwards who can offload with the best of them. David Wallace, the open-side flanker, is brilliant at it. And outside? We all know about Gordon D'Arcy and Brian O'Driscoll - players who have what it takes to unlock defences. As a consequence, we can safely describe this as Andy Farrell's biggest test. He needs to be up on his toes and completely alert for the full 80 minutes. I think he'll cope - he's a big-hit tackler in his own right, and he has two magnificent defensive players around him in Jonny Wilkinson and Mike Tindall. All the same, it will be quite an examination.
This isn't the first time I've talked about Farrell, but it seems to me that England have yet to draw the best from him. So far, he's been used purely as a passer of the ball - a strong part of his game, certainly, but not the only weapon in the armoury. I want to see him going to the line more, because the Irish won't like it one bit if he does.
To do that, though, he needs players running off his shoulder: the Vickerys, the Lunds, the Tindalls, the Lewseys. In the last two games, only Martin Corry has been making himself available. I'm confident England will dominate the set-piece battle, but are there enough runners in the pack? If they can introduce some Irish-style offloading into their game, I think they will win the match.
O'Driscoll - one hell of a player
A word about O'Driscoll, who means so much to this Irish side. It's interesting to me that he's never produced a really outstanding performance against England, and I'm sure Brian Ashton and company hope he sticks to his habit today. There will come a time when he delivers, though.
My experience of working with Brian on two Lions tours has left me with some vivid memories. Some of the rugby he played in Australia in 2001 was absolutely exceptional, and I'd like to think he'd have had his moments in the Test series against New Zealand two years ago had he not been invalided out of the tour so early, and in such controversial circumstances.
His work rate is phenomenal and it allows him to make things happen almost out of nothing. You have no choice but to mark him tight because he has such explosive pace, but he can make a mug of you no matter how tight you get, because he has that priceless ability of putting his outside men in space. He's a great support runner too, although these days, he's more of a creator than an opportunist.
If people fail to appreciate one aspect of his game, it is the ferocity of his commitment at the breakdown. Ireland contest the loose ball pretty much from one to 15, but Brian is up there with the loose forwards when it comes to getting down and dirty in and around the tackle. In that respect, he reminds me of the best of the All Black midfielders. When it comes to risking his good looks by getting his head over the ball, he's as willing as any player in the world. It's why his colleagues love him. Every player responds to a captain who leads from the front and puts himself on the line - especially when he also scores so many important tries.
They simply shouldn't have played
It would be remiss of me to sign off without addressing the vexed issue of the club-versus-country conflict. A couple of weeks ago, I insisted that none of today's starting XV should play for their clubs in the interim. As it turned out, some did and some didn't. Put simply, it wasn't good enough. Anywhere near.
England's preparation has been distorted by Premiership calls last weekend. Brian Ashton said on Tuesday he had been limited to a couple of walk-through sessions, and while I didn't see that as a major problem, it was clear that a lot of important work could have been done the previous week, giving the squad opportunity to relax in the build-up to this game. Instead, they've been working while tired - never an ideal arrangement.
This is where the system lets English rugby down. The important decisions should not have been left to the club coaches. This time last year, Brian himself was at Bath, wearing a different hat and looking at the world from a different vantage point. He chose to play his England internationals. It wasn't his fault then, and it isn't now. The fault lies with the situation that has been allowed to develop over the 11 years of professionalism.
Quite frankly, it was crazy that Farrell was asked to play for Saracens last Sunday, that Danny Grewcock was picked for Bath last Saturday. In my opinion, it is about time people stopped putting their careers in front of the needs of their country. If England are successful, the club game flourishes from the grass roots up.
Yes, coaches and clubs should be properly rewarded for producing top international players; at the same time, I don't think it's good enough for those coaches to keep trotting out the "what would you do if you were standing in our shoes?" line when they're asked to rest people. They should be bigger than that. Ideally, they shouldn't be placed in the situation in the first place.
The sooner this thing is sorted, the better it will be for everyone involved.
Player to watch: Simon Easterby
How can an Englishman be playing for Ireland? Oh well. I rate Easterby (born in Yorkshire, I believe I'm right in say- ing) and if England are wise, they will have spent a good deal of time concocting a strategy that will take him out of the game. He reminds me in some ways of Richard Hill, who played such an influential role for England in the same position of blind-side flanker. To begin with, Easterby is a prime physical specimen; very, very fit and blessed with a great engine. He's also astute - pretty much as smart as they come. What is more, he is underrated by the wider rugby public. Richard knows how that feels. England will underrate him at their peril, because if they let him do as he pleases, they will find their flow of possession slowing to a trickle. Easterby pulls every stunt in the book to get in there on opposition ball and mess it up. The referee should be wary of him. So too should England.
By Chris HewettReuse content