Gatland: Irish beware Robinsons on a mission

Coach who knows both camps sees hope for the wilting Red Rose brigade
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The Independent Online

In the build-up to Dublin, the England management have spoken carefully of "giving respect" to Ronan O'Gara, the Ireland fly-half. It sounds euphemistic, and Warren Gatland, who coached the Irish the last time they beat England in Dublin, believes it is. "That's one area England should definitely be targeting," said Gatland, "getting their big ball-carriers - Martin Corry, Joe Worsley, Mark Cueto - to run all over Ronan. When he's on the front foot there's not many to beat him. Defensively, there's a question mark against him."

In the build-up to Dublin, the England management have spoken carefully of "giving respect" to Ronan O'Gara, the Ireland fly-half. It sounds euphemistic, and Warren Gatland, who coached the Irish the last time they beat England in Dublin, believes it is. "That's one area England should definitely be targeting," said Gatland, "getting their big ball-carriers - Martin Corry, Joe Worsley, Mark Cueto - to run all over Ronan. When he's on the front foot there's not many to beat him. Defensively, there's a question mark against him."

It should be recalled that it was Gatland, the New Zealander who had charge of Ireland for four years, who gave O'Gara his international debut, in 2000. But Gatland, too, whose current club, Wasps, engineered a fine Heineken Cup semi-final triumph at Lansdowne Road last season by letting loose the dogs of rugby war on the Munster No 10. "Ronan's a good distributor," said Gatland, "but he's not the quickest out-half in the world, doesn't make a lot of breaks and defensively can be targeted. We [Wasps] sent a lot of players down his channel in that semi-final and he went off after 30 minutes."

Gatland has never hid his disappointment at the way his Ireland contract was not renewed in November 2001, a few weeks after his side famously felled Clive Woodward's England, 20-14. He believes he laid the platform for the Irish revival now in the hands of his successor, Eddie O'Sullivan. But he has come up smiling at Wasps, in a job he might otherwise never have taken, by landing two Premiership titles and a Heineken Cup.

Gatland is uniquely familiar with this afternoon's cast - he worked with almost all the present Ireland squad, while Wasps provide Joe Worsley, Josh Lewsey and Matt Dawson to England's 22 - and cannot help but enthuse over the clash to come. "If it was me coaching," Gatland said, "I'd lay it on the line that this is a Lions trial. Looking at all the match-ups, who comes out on top could cement their Lions place. Simon Easterby and Joe Worsley; Anthony Foley and Martin Corry; the four second-rows and the hookers. There's John Hayes's performance at prop and whether Graham Rowntree takes him, plus the half-backs. Denis Hickie's playing for a position, Lewsey as well, and Cueto. It's exciting.

"It's also a clash of the two coaches. We know Clive [Woodward] is the overall Lions manager, but who'll be delivering the tactical stuff and the motivational stuff? If Clive wants one other coach to speak to the Test side before a game, will it be Eddie O'Sullivan or Andy Robinson? This game could decide it."

Coincidentally, Gatland has an Anglo-Irish date today, with Wasps going to London Irish. And as it happens, he rather fancies an away-win double, almost in spite of himself. "One of the reasons I think England might win is this is their biggest game since the World Cup final. They're at a real crossroads. If they lose, a lot of questions will be asked about Andy [Robinson] and his set-up, and some of the players. When there's a lot at stake, that's often when you see big performances, and it's a big game for both Robinsons, coach and captain.

"I don't want to be critical or negative about England's coaching staff, but most of them have been together a long time. It was important that Andy put his own mark on it, and he's basically just rolled everyone over. From the outside, and even from the inside, it looks like it's all Clive's set-up. Andy could have freshened things up. With Jason Robinson, I've been a little disappointed with how conservative he has become lately. The number of times he's kicking the ball in one-on-one situations instead of keeping the ball in play and trying to create something. I hope the pressure of captaincy hasn't put him off the adventurous rugby. It's important he plays well, as a catalyst for others to go on."

In the 2001 Championship disrupted by foot-and-mouth, Gatland's Ireland lost the Six Nations title to England on points difference, but savoured their unexpected victory in the head-to-head. Now Ireland are widely fancied.

"It used to be Ireland would get ahead and not believe in themselves to finish the job," Gatland recalled. "Ireland know they can win today, but they'll have to play more rugby than they did against Scotland, when they kicked a lot and went for territory. They definitely won't bully the English forward pack like they did against Scotland. Discipline will be key for England. There were two or three definitely avoidable penalties given away in that second half against France.

"If England lose, I don't think good performances subsequently against Italy and Scotland will count for a lot."

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