Dublin prepares to feast on fallen England

Expectations run high as O'Driscoll and his in-form flyers eye up stumbling world champions

England appear to be at such a low point they are no longer capable of talking a good game, and their body language may as well be Esperanto. "We are not in Dublin to make up the numbers," Andy Robinson, the coach, said. "We're not going to be the bridesmaids." That's reassuring news. A bouquet for Mr Robinson.

England appear to be at such a low point they are no longer capable of talking a good game, and their body language may as well be Esperanto. "We are not in Dublin to make up the numbers," Andy Robinson, the coach, said. "We're not going to be the bridesmaids." That's reassuring news. A bouquet for Mr Robinson.

From world champions to rabid underdogs in 15 months is some achievement. The last time Ireland won a Grand Slam was so long ago James Joyce might have been writing about it. Fifty-seven years on and Ireland's turn has come round again. Having won their opening two encounters, against Italy and Scotland on the road, the Irish are perfectly placed to exploit England's fragility at Lansdowne Road today.

"I think the England team that won the World Cup was one of the best sides in my experience," Brian O'Driscoll said. "I think we're still a distance away from that, but I feel we're getting closer to it."

O'Driscoll, who missed the impressive victory over the Scots because of a hamstring injury, returns to captain his country after receiving an extraordinary course of treatment in Poland. Not even Istabraq, when the great thoroughbred had a muscle twinge, was so pampered.

For a nation on intimate terms with the Blarney Stone, the Irish become uncharacteristically coy when burdened with the responsibility of favouritism. It sits on them like an anvil with a hair shirt.

Thus Eddie O'Sullivan, the Ireland coach whose stock is rising, attempts to play down England's personnel problems, which have seen significant changes in most positions. "England are still a good team," O'Sullivan said. "They have lost a couple of games they could have won and are in transition, but it would be very hard to find a bad England rugby team because of the depth of talent.

"From a coaching point of view it's obviously an advantage to have a settled side, but England's changes are largely the result of retirements, so they're not surprises. They have a few injuries but I don't think it's a major deal. There aren't too many rookies."

For one reason or another England are missing 22 of their World Cup squad. Two years ago, when Clive Woodward was a plain commoner, his team were in majestic form, beating Ireland 42-6 in a Grand Slam decider in Dublin. The try-scorers on a day when English rugby was taken to a new level: Will Greenwood with two, Lawrence Dallaglio, Mike Tindall and Dan Luger; and, of course, there was Jonny Wilkinson to kick the goals. Where are they now?

Following eight defeats in 11 matches, England are heading towards the South Pole in the world rankings, and Andy Robinson has been under pressure to defend the reputations of key players. Since taking over as captain, Jason Robinson has not been as dynamic. "I'm very happy with the job he's doing," the coach said. "His leadership has been excellent, his defence world-class."

But Robinson, first and foremost, is an attacker of bewildering unpredictability. Joe Lydon, the backs coach, said: "Jason flourishes when there's no structure. I'd hate to impose something on him that restricted him." Like the captaincy?

And what of Charlie Hodgson, Wilkinson's stand-in at stand-off, who seems to be hit-or-miss? "Charlie's state of mind is very good," Andy Robinson said. A similar vote of confidence came from Dave Alred, the kicking coach. "Nothing's different," Alred said, "other than that he will have to have the ability to kick on ice." Thin ice at that.

Leaving aside O'Driscoll, the world's greatest centre, if you were a Lions selector would you go for Robinson or Geordan Murphy? Hodgson or Ronan O'Gara? As it stands, the vote is green. The Red Rose hierarchy has not been so beleaguered since 1987, when England last lost their opening three games.

Jason Robinson felt obliged last week to launch a fierce defence of Hodgson as Andy Goode was scoring a mountain of points for Leicester in their demolition of Newcastle. Goode has been promoted to the England bench, although John Wells, the Leic-ester coach, added to Andy Robinson's problems by saying he didn't want the Tigers No 10 travelling to Dublin merely as a replacement.

Relations between the two coaches did not improve over the Lewis Moody farce. Moody cut a finger in the game against France and it became infected when he played the last few minutes off the bench against Newcastle. The Tigers were about 80 points up at the time. As far as Robinson was concerned it was adding insult to injury, not to mention infection. To Robinson's great relief, Moody passed a fitness test yesterday - "It is a big boost," the coach said. "The experience he has will be important."

England had already been forced to change their front row with the introduction of the 22-year-old Matt Stevens at tight-head prop, his first start at Test level. Stevens, who is not a specialist in this position, has been forced into service because of injuries to Julian White and Phil Vickery. "He's the right choice," Robinson maintained. "We have no doubt he can scrummage and he understands our defensive system and our line-out calls."

Which is, perhaps, more than can be said for the hooker Steve Thompson. "I've been bitterly disappointed with our line-outs, but it's getting better," Robinson said.

In the Six Nations last year, when Fortress Twickenham fell to the Irish, the Red Rose line-out was taken apart. "We've been working on a system, involving lifting technique, jumping and throw-ins, that will guarantee possession," Robinson said. "Our line-out will go up another notch for this game. It will have to. We'll be under the most intense pressure.

"The rucks are another key battle. We intend to give it a blast in contact. If we can win the ball dynamically rather than slowly you will see more of an attacking game from us. We will also have to dominate field position, otherwise Ireland will squeeze the life out of us. They've got great belief and they're very streetwise."

Indeed, in the departments of faith and nous Ireland look streets ahead.

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