The Irish threw down their expected challenge to England yesterday by recalling Malcolm O'Kelly, an unusually substantial physical specimen constructed by the firm responsible for the O'Connell Bridge, to their second row for this weekend's Six Nations game at Twickenham. True to form, the increasingly bullish Sir Clive Woodward responded by informing the visitors that if they wanted a full-on scrap at the heavyweight end of the forward contest, they could have one.
"England's pack is an aggressive place to be," said the coach, by way of dismissing the suggestion that the absence of the injured Danny Grewcock from the red-rose engine room meant his side would be more conciliatory than usual. "I wouldn't describe Steve Borthwick as a particularly gentle type; apart from anything else, he's just come back from suspension. Borthwick was bitterly disappointed at missing the cut for the World Cup and he wants to prove a point. I don't think you'll find us lacking in that department on Saturday."
Nevertheless, Ireland fancy their chances of playing merry hell with the English locks, both in the line-out and in the driving play. Paul O'Connell, the ruthless Munsterman with one eye on a Lions Test place against the All Blacks next year, is perfectly equipped to take advantage of England's inexperience in the front-jumper department - a situation initially created by Martin Johnson's retirement and exacerbated by Grewcock's incapacitation. With a pumped-up O'Kelly alongside him, O'Connell will have the scent of blood in his nostrils.
Eddie O'Sullivan, the Ireland coach, was always likely to restrict his selectorial tinkerings to a bare minimum following his side's comprehensive victory over Wales in Dublin 10 days ago, and so it proved when he revealed his hand yesterday. O'Kelly replaces Donncha O'Callaghan, the lighter but more mobile lock from Munster who twanged his knee ligaments in the early stages of the Welsh match, with Gary Longwell, of Ulster, promoted to the bench. Everything else is as it was at Lansdowne Road.
"We have to travel to Twickenham thinking we can win," O'Sullivan said. "We've had a couple of decent results against Australia and France in recent seasons, but to beat the world champions would be the cherry on the cake."
For his part, Woodward described Ireland as one of the teams that "always cause us concern", adding: "We'll have to step it up, because this lot are dangerous. They have an experienced pack, one of the best players in the world in Brian O'Driscoll and half-backs who know what they're doing."
While the England coach had no issues with the appointment of Paul Honiss, the anti-scrummaging referee from New Zealand, as Saturday's principal official, he was less than happy with the Celts on the subject of A-team rugby. The second-string Six Nations tournament was scrapped last year when Wales, followed closely by the Scots and the Irish, decided they could not afford to finance their end of the operation and pulled out. Woodward has been smouldering ever since.
"We have one A-team game this season, against the French in Perpignan this week," he said. "It's not enough, and the lack of fixtures has definitely put us back. I'm lobbying pretty hard for the championship to be reinstated next year, because I see it as critical in terms of our development. If the Celts don't want to play A-team rugby, I'll look for games elsewhere. There are plenty of Super 12 sides from the southern hemisphere looking for meaningful matches at this time of year."
Privately, the England coaching hierarchy are flabbergasted at the way the Celtic nations were permitted to abandon a tournament that attracted big crowds and generated interest from broadcasters, and they wonder how national unions can afford to stage pre-match entertainment while claiming poverty on the playing front.
Mike Catt, the Bath midfielder, will captain the A-team in the south of France on Friday.
SIX NATIONS' CHAMPIONSHIP (v England at Twickenham, Saturday, 4pm): G Dempsey (Leinster); S Horgan (Leinster), G D'Arcy (Leinster), B O'Driscoll (capt, Leinster), T Howe (Ulster); R O'Gara (Munster), P Stringer (Munster); R Corrigan (Leinster), S Byrne (Leinster), J Hayes (Munster), M O'Kelly (Leinster), P O'Connell (Munster), S Easterby (Llanelli), K Gleeson (Leinster), A Foley (Munster).
Replacements: F Sheahan (Munster), S Best (Ulster), G Longwell (Ulster), V Costello (Leinster), G Easterby (Rotherham), D Humphreys (Ulster), K Maggs (Bath).Reuse content