England wary of the Celtic ambush

Six Nations' Championship: The last hurdle has brought them down before, so any old win will do
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As they were saying before they were rudely interrupted, England will complete the grandest of slams in Dublin on Saturday. The foot and mouth outbreak has merely delayed the inevitable and prolonged the agony for the Irish, who have nothing to look forward to bar a wake.

As they were saying before they were rudely interrupted, England will complete the grandest of slams in Dublin on Saturday. The foot and mouth outbreak has merely delayed the inevitable and prolonged the agony for the Irish, who have nothing to look forward to bar a wake.

This, of course, is music to Ireland's ears. Allergic to favouritism, they are, as underdogs, the best in breed, but even at Lansdowne Road they will be ill-equipped to withstand the team who have established a new standard in the Six Nations' Championship. By April England had played four, won four, scoring a record 215 points and a record 28 tries. They began by beating Wales in Cardiff 44-15, put 80 points on Italy at Twickenham, hammered Scotland 43-3 at headquarters before putting France through a similar experience, 48-19. Clearly, England have been operating at a different level, and only a few questions remain.

The first is the healing of a psychological scar. In recent seasons Clive Woodward's all-purpose squad have been on the brink of successive Grand Slams only to be ambushed in a very Celtic manner. A couple of years ago it was Wales at Wembley who denied them a clean sweep when Scott Gibbs scored an injury-time try. Neil Jenkins' conversion turned victory into an extraordinary defeat. Last season, they were back on course when they were submerged beneath a Scottish deluge. Can Ireland complete the Celtic uprising? Most people thought they had a team to beat the Scots last month, but they went down without a fight. They were as dismal then as they were vibrant in hammering Wales yesterday.

England should have had their 12th Grand Slam under lock and key six months ago when they were scheduled to complete their programme against France at Twickenham. That is when the champagne would have been drunk from the Six Nations' Trophy. Instead they find themselves in Dublin, another Slam, another Triple Crown beckoning. The Celtic Kiss cannot work three seasons running.

The only other questions surround the composition of the England team following the Lions tour and Martin Johnson's suspected broken hand yesterday. Who replaces him as both captain and lock, who comes in for the injured Lawrence Dallaglio in the back row, and is there a place for Iain Balshaw? Fitting the bill for Johnson's two roles are Steve Borthwick, who forms a Bath second-row with Danny Grewcock, and Matt Dawson, a former captain.

Assuming the rest of the pack return to duty – it would mean Jason Leonard winning a fourth Grand Slam, an achievement matched by only three other England players, all in the Twenties – the back row should consist of the three Lions, Richard Hill, Martin Corry and Neil Back. Hill and Corry could wear six and eight or vice versa.

It's the structure of the threequarter line that will exercise Woodward's mind. As an international full-back Balshaw ran riot last winter, but he has run into trouble this season. Graham Henry preferred Matt Perry as the Lions' full-back in Australia. I think England would be taking an unnecessary risk to play Balshaw at No. 15 at Lansdowne Road, where a full-back can expect an examination by garryowen. Perry would be the safer bet. If the wings are Jason Robinson and Dan Luger, Balshaw will be on the bench, listening to the latest observations of Austin Healey.

In almost every other area it makes sense for Woodward to stick as closely as possible to the team who have put England within 80 minutes of their due reward. Will Greenwood and Mike Catt formed an excellent axis with Jonny Wilkinson. Although the two centres have only just returned to Premiership duty there is no case for omitting them now. As captain of the tour to North America, during which England stretched their winning sequence to a record 11 victories, Kyran Bracken earned plenty of brownie points, but again it's difficult to see beyond the incumbent Dawson.

"It's going to be as big a test as any international can be," Johnson said, in what has become a well-rehearsed speech. "It would be good to have something tangible to show for our efforts. People say we would have learnt valuable lessons from losing to Scotland, but there's only one lesson – losing is always a terrible feeling. We're away from Twickenham for the first time since Cardiff last February. We, the players, and the England fans are going to have to accept that it's not going to go all our own way like it did for much of the four previous Six Nations matches. There's going to be a lot of expectation because of what we've achieved so far, but facing Ireland is going to be very different.

"In the other matches we ran the opposition ragged, but in Dublin we'll settle for any kind of win. It's going to require a tough and dogged performance. There will be times when we're under severe pressure and quite possibly times when we find ourselves behind. It's going to be good for us not only because there's a Grand Slam to be won but because Ireland away is perfect preparation for our autumn internationals against Australia, Romania and South Africa.''

Strange to relate, but Johnson has won only one Slam, in 1995, which means of course that England have not completed the Six Nations whitewash in the professional era. "In all those championships we've only ever lost one game each time and it tells you more about how hard it is to pull off a Grand Slam.''

If England are unbackable with the bookmakers it is for good reason. A few days ago Zurich, the sponsors of the Premiership, launched their world team rankings, which have England third, behind Australia and New Zealand, and Ireland eighth. South Africa are fourth, France fifth, Wales sixth and Scotland seventh. If England are successful in the autumn, and providing that the Wallabies travel on the short tour to Europe, the red-rose brigade could become No 1 in the world before Christmas.

Based on video analysis, the best Six Nations XV includes eight Englishmen and a solitary Irishman, Keith Wood. But the World XV includes only one Australian, Owen Finegan at No 6, and only one All Black, the full-back Leon MacDonald.

It contains seven Englishmen – Healey, Greenwood, Catt, Phil Vickery, Johnson, Grewcock and Back – but there is no place for Wilkinson. The half-backs are Gerald Merçeron of France and Robert Howley of Wales.

With analysis taking into account factors such as quality of opposition and venue, the computer forecast in Dublin on Saturday is England to win by 28 points.

Zurich Six Nations XV: C Stoica (Italy); A Healey (England), W Greenwood (England), M Catt (England), C Dominici (France); G Merçeron (France), R Howley (Wales); T Smith (Scotland), K Wood (Ireland), P Vickery (England), M Johnson (England), D Grewcock (England), R Hill (England), S Quinnell (Wales), N Back (England).

The World XV differs only at full-back, where MacDonald replaces Stoica, and at No 6, where Finegan is in for Richard Hill.