Distracted Johnno must sort out problems closer to home

Row over selection of French-based players is masking need for a settled No 10
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The Independent Online

Perhaps it’s time to put your money, or your faith, in Ireland. Under the coach Declan Kidney, formerly the master of Munster, and the captaincy of Brian O’Driscoll, who threatens to regain the mastership of the universe, the Irish are looking good. The two men have history – Kidney used to coach Ireland Under-19s when they were led by O’Driscoll and they won the junior World Cup in 1998.

It is a sobering thought that Ireland have yet to win the Six Nations’ Championship and in the last couple of seasons seemed to lose their way. They crashed out of the 2007 World Cup, which led to the departure of Eddie O’Sullivan, and last year they were fourth out of six in Europe after defeats to France, Wales and England.

This time, with wins over France and Italy, they have got off to a flier and have a settled, confident team. Next up is England at Croke Park on Saturday, by which time both sides will have absorbed the events of France and Wales in Paris on Friday. What happens at “Croker” could well determine the outcome of the whole shooting match and it is as big a test for the Irish as it is for the English.

The English and Welsh have been making headlines for all the wrong reasons. England are in a right pickle over the departure next season to France of the Wasps trio James Haskell, Riki Flutey and Tom Palmer. There could be more. Even Jonny Wilkinson may be tempted and the exchange rate is not helping.

England have tried to talk their way out of it. Martin Johnson, the manager, and Rob Andrew, the Rugby Football Union’s elite director, have been banging on about the dangers of players crossing the Channel, where there is no salary cap worthy of the name – Dan Carter didn’t go to Perpignan for his health – and for Test selection it’s a case of out of sight, out of mind.

“Players will need to be available when Martin wants them,” Andrew said. “By definition, if they are not, that will compromise their situation. The key thing is the integrity of the England team.” Hypocrisy springs to mind. Andrew was once chosen for England while playing for Toulouse. When the game went pro he led a mass exodus from Wasps to Sir John Hall’s Newcastle. Nothing quite like English cricket’s brief innings with another knight but it still leaves a bitter stench.

Johnson, equally bemused, said: “I told the players that it’s harder to see you play. We can watch tapes but they are not competing in the Premiership. Ultimately it’s their choice.” Which brings us to Andy Goode, Johnson’s choice at stand-off even though the former Leicester player had joined Brive. Johnson didn’t watch Goode play in France, he looked at a DVD.

The timing of all this couldn’t be worse for England, who are already confused enough. Is Goode good enough to stay at No 10? No way, despite the fact that he has done a decent job so far. He scored enough points on his own to beat Italy but was terribly limited; he was better against Wales but a yellow card turned the match.

Danny Cipriani has been turning it on for Wasps – as he did against Ireland at the end of the last Six Nations – but Johnson has gone off him. England were so desperate to beat Italy in the opening game that they turned to Goode. England’s lifeline in the defeat to Wales is that they scored two tries to one but their discipline was still awful. Will Johnson stick with Goode or go for Toby Flood? If England are to stand any chance they must go with Flood or recall Cipriani.

Wales, putting up a decent defence of their Grand Slam, face an equally horrible trip to Paris and have been distracted too, by the shenanigans of Gavin Henson and Co in a Cardiff pub last Sunday. This was the second shock for the coach Warren Gatland. The first was England’s superior try count.

Gatland taunted England – “they’ve shut up shop”, “Leicester have more firepower” etc – and was asking for trouble. He got it too, although Stephen Jones deservedly kicked him out of trouble after England failed to listen to warning after warning from the referee. Wales’s performance wasn’t half as good as it was supposed to be. For one thing Andy Powell and Mike Phillips were far too predictable; and they missed Shane Williams like mad.

Should Wales, going for their first back-to-back Grand Slams since 1909, win in Paris they will equal the record of nine successive wins in the Six Nations. It’s almost as big a task as asking the fans to take Friday off. Marc Lièvremont, the coach of France who has yet to get his team firing on more than a cylinder and a half, said: “All these matches should be played at 3pm on a Saturday.” Hear hear.

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