England's nemesis given chance to run wild again
If Ben Youngs is right about Ireland's thinking ahead of this weekend's Grand Slam game in Dublin – and all things considered, England's scrum-half discovery has been far more right than wrong since breaking into the starting line-up last summer – the Six Nations champions elect now know precisely what to expect from their most difficult opponents of the tournament. "If they go with Ronan O'Gara at outside-half, we'll know they're planning to play territory," Youngs said this week. "If they go with Jonathan Sexton, we'll know they're ready to run it."
This was not the most revelatory tactical appraisal of the modern rugby age: Sid James could have told us this much, let alone Carwyn James. But Youngs had a point. The differences between the two Irish No 10s, one a man of Munster and the other a man of Leinster, are of a chalk-and-cheese dimension, and by picking the younger man in Sexton, the coach Declan Kidney has made a statement of intent.
It was Sexton who unravelled England in last year's match at Twickenham, and if he has fallen off his 2010 standard just recently, he remains a dangerous customer. Kidney must have thought long and hard before relegating O'Gara to replacement status a few days after starting him against the Welsh in Cardiff, but if the Irish centres – an out-of-sorts yet threatening Gordon D'Arcy, accompanied by Brian O'Driscoll, the nearest thing to a genuinely great player active in European rugby – are to expose England's obvious limitations in midfield, Sexton is the better man to arm them.
Besides, it is perfectly possible that O'Gara will have a late say in matters anyway. Ireland's version of Jonny Wilkinson, he is the perfect man to close out a tight game off the bench. Had he not performed his party piece against Italy in the opening round – there is nothing of the wisdom of hindsight in suggesting that his match-saving drop goal had an overpowering whiff of inevitability about it – the Azzurri would now have two wins under their belts, rather than one.
The notion that Ireland will play a high-tempo game with ball in hand was reinforced by Kidney's decision to drop Luke Fitzgerald from the full-back position after his travails against Wales and relocate the unnervingly rapid Keith Earls from his regular berth on the left wing. Andrew Trimble, a strong Heineken Cup performer for Ulster this season, will complete the back three.
Kidney explained the second of his changes to the run-on team by saying: "If Luke has made errors, it's probably because he's tried too hard and overstretched himself. Andrew has been knocking on the door for quite some time and has done well. He was showing great form going into the Six Nations." The coach added that the scrum-half Eoin Reddan, poleaxed and concussed after charging down a clearance kick in the opening seconds of the game at the Millennium Stadium, would start on Saturday night provided he received a positive assessment from a consultant neurologist.
England manager Martin Johnson, who captained the red-rose team the last time they won in Dublin eight years ago, will confirm his line-up today. Mike Tindall's damaged ankle ligaments are expected to prevent him continuing his unbeaten run as interim skipper – Matt Banahan of Bath, nothing more than an occasional centre, will replace him – but there is little appetite among the selectors for changes elsewhere. The one outside bet is Tom Croft, the Leicester back-rower, who scored a crucial try off the bench during last weekend's Calcutta Cup victory over Scotland, but it would be a desperately hard call to drop either of the incumbent flankers. Tom Wood has delivered in spades while James Haskell pocketed the man-of-the-match gong for his performance against the Scots.
Haskell, rarely found wanting in the self-assurance department, appeared ultra-confident as he looked ahead to the Grand Slam challenge. "Does all the pomp and circumstance of a week like this affect us while we're in camp? No it doesn't," he said when asked if England's general unpopularity as a rugby nation, illustrated by the assertion of the Ireland wing Tommy Bowe that "all the different nations will be backing us", might undermine preparations. "Unless people firebomb the team bus or storm the hotel waving placards, it's an irrelevance to us."
He might have put it just a little more sensitively, given the history of Anglo-Irish relations, but no one could accuse him of failing to make his point. "We have a lot of guys who have tasted hostile environments – people who have played in big club finals," he went on. "That filters down through the squad. There will be nerves and there will be fear, but there will be excitement as well."
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