Nervy Johnson admits Irish test is 'huge'

Manager denies that today's Ireland game is a defining point in his regime / England 'a work in progress' he insists

Two years ago, England put three tries and 33 points past an Ireland side who would go on to win a Grand Slam the following season.

According to Martyn Thomas, it was not much of a victory – "Let's face it, that wasn't a very good Irish team," he said at the time – but then, the Rugby Football Union chairman had his reasons for playing it down, as Brian Ashton would quickly discover to his cost. How things change. Today, England would happily pay a king's ransom for a win of the no-try, one-point variety.

Ashton was dumped in the most brutal of fashions after the 2008 match, which also signalled the end of the Six Nations road for a number of his players – Iain Balshaw, Lesley Vainikolo, Richard Wigglesworth, Michael Lipman – and may yet come to be seen as a depressingly premature high point of Danny Cipriani's international career. (Cipriani ran rings round Ireland, kicking 18 points into the bargain, and Twickenham has not seen the like of it since. Whether or not the disaffected celebrity playmaker will find a way of revisiting those heights when he returns from self-imposed exile in Australia is anyone's guess) It is worth pointing out, not that Thomas and his fellow committee-room politicians will want to hear it, that Ireland's starting line-up that day featured six of the forwards on duty this afternoon, along with such contrastingly gifted outside-backs as Geordan Murphy and Tommy Bowe. No one suggests they are not up to much now, despite the pummelling they took from a rampant French side in Paris just recently. Should England finish second here, Thomas and his acolytes will no doubt explain it away by reminding the public that Ireland are the reigning champions.

Yesterday, Martin Johnson was keen to refute the suggestion that this might be a defining moment for his regime. He did, however, refer to it as "a huge game", which was not the kind of language commonly associated with English rugby's master of understatement. The manager will be as nervous as anyone, because defeat might easily reopen the wounds of '08 and lead many to ask, once again, whether the cruel, spectacularly mishandled outbreak of palace intrigue that brought him to power had any real point to it?

Ireland travel in greater strength on this occasion, simply because their centres – the elusive and quick-witted Gordon D'Arcy, the mesmeric Brian O'Driscoll – pose an infinitely greater threat than Andrew Trimble and Shane Horgan, who did duty in their absence last time. They also have the fast-blossoming talent of Stephen Ferris at their disposal. The back-row forward from Portadown is only 17 caps into his Test career, which makes him a rookie by modern standards, but there is barely a selector on earth who would not pick him right now. Those who see in him a touch of the young John Hall, the England flanker of the 1980s who would certainly have achieved greatness but for injury, have no problems with their eyesight.

Hall now runs the video analysis operation for the England team – helped, strange to relate, by Ashton's son, Tony – and it is a fair bet that the coaches have cast a collective eye over every last frame of footage involving Jonathan Sexton. Chosen ahead of the master kicker Ronan O'Gara, who has spent the last decade forcing defences to turn tail and trudge 50 metres in the wrong direction, the 24-year-old Leinster outside-half has a wider range of weaponry at his disposal. Indeed, some believe he can do to England what Cipriani did to Ireland.

This will be Sexton's first Six Nations start and his first meeting with England. O'Gara, by contrast, has scored 84 points in nine appearances against the red-rose collective. It is a bold move by Declan Kidney, the Ireland coach, especially as Lewis Moody, one of the more harum-scarum flankers of the age, will make it his business to "let Sexton know where he is", as Johnson put it. The new stand-off is clearly Kidney's man for the World Cup in New Zealand next year, but it would be no great surprise to see O'Gara summoned from the bench at some stage, especially if the wind rips through the stadium as it did yesterday.

Johnson has yet to see his side lose a home Six Nations fixture and is deeply reluctant to witness such an event for the first time against these, of all opponents. But he knows Ireland pose an extremely serious threat, not least in the back-row department, where Ferris' partnership with the Lions Test forwards David Wallace and Jamie Heaslip is proving particularly effective. Do England have the know-how to match them at the breakdown? The manager could not say for sure.

"We're a work in progress," he argued. "We have a lot of improvement in us, which is a good thing, and every game we play together makes us better off because we have people in the side – Danny Care and Jonny Wilkinson, Riki Flutey and Mathew Tait – who are still getting used to each other. Also, I feel we have a tempo to our rugby now. But the trick is to maintain that tempo when we have the ball, and that means being really accurate at the breakdown. If we're not we'll be in danger of conceding turnovers, because the Irish are especially good in that area. We have to make sure we're the ones doing the imposing, not the ones being imposed upon."

England cannot hope to beat Ireland the way the French beat them earlier this month: the sustained intensity summoned by the Tricolores was beyond anything seen from a northern hemisphere side in years. But they have the ability to cramp the style of O'Driscoll and company – they could stop the Harlem Globetrotters playing, this lot – and if it comes down to kicks, as well it might, who will bet against the much-criticised Wilkinson doing the necessary?

*Ireland captain Brian O'Driscoll is expected to be fit to play today despite missing training yesterday because of illness. Ireland coach Declan Kidney insisted his withdrawal was just a precautionary measure. "I'm going to bed thinking he will wake up tomorrow looking forward to the game and that's what the medics say too." Should O'Driscoll fail to recover, Keith Earls will switch from wing to outside centre, Andrew Trimble will take the No 11 jersey with Paddy Wallace drafted on to the bench. Paul O'Connell will captain the team.

Battle of the back rows: The three big match ups that could settle Twickenham clash

Blindside flanker: James Haskell v Stephen Ferris

Haskell: Hardly flavour of the month when he joined Stade Francais last summer, he is tickling Martin Johnson's taste buds once again. More worker than than Champagne Charlie these days – against Wales, he hit 40 rucks while touching the ball four times – he has size as well as aggression on his side.

Ferris: But for injury, the Ulsterman would have made the Lions Test side. Ferociously combative and utterly fearless, he plays the cement-between-the-bricks role to perfection. A key figure.

Open-side flanker: Lewis Moody v David Wallace

Moody: The Leicester breakaway's early injury in Rome last time out removed much of the sting from England. Barely functional as a link player, he makes up for his footballing shortcomings with an extraordinarily energetic chase-tackle-hassle game..

Wallace: The most celebrated and successful of three rugby-playing brothers from Cork, the Munsterman boasts the full range of the modern-day flanker's skills. Strong on the drive, cute with ball in hand and difficult to counter on the floor.

Number 8: Nick Easter v Jamie Heaslip

Easter: Brian Ashton, the coach who first picked him for England, describes the big Harlequin as "an old-fashioned game player", blessed with a "strong, deep-rooted rugby instinct, an uncluttered way of thinking". Far from the quickest across the ground, his speed of thought adds something different to the mix.

Heaslip: By common consent the most dangerous running No 8 in this championship, the 26-year-old Leinsterman – born in the Israeli port city of Tiberias, of all places on God's earth – emerged as a state-of-the-art player during last summer's Lions tour.

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