Ireland threaten to put seal on England's winter of discontent

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Andy Robinson is not the first England coach to anticipate difficult conditions at Lansdowne Road, where a gale-force wind unaccompanied by rain is the local equivalent of paradise. But meteorology is the last thing on the beleaguered West Countryman's mind right now.

Andy Robinson is not the first England coach to anticipate difficult conditions at Lansdowne Road, where a gale-force wind unaccompanied by rain is the local equivalent of paradise. But meteorology is the last thing on the beleaguered West Countryman's mind right now.

The wind he fears is not the kind that blows straight through the ricketiest old stadium in Christendom, chilling the poor souls huddled on the south terrace to their collective marrow. Robinson is concerned about the wind of change threatening to blow the world champions apex over base into the Irish Sea.

England have been concerned about tomorrow's game against the new favourites for the Six Nations title ever since they lost to them at Twickenham a year ago. On that occasion, they saw Brian O'Driscoll play like a drain and still lead his side to victory. They also saw their line-out burgled so comprehensively that any insurance company worth its salt would have refused to pay up on account of the policy holders' ineptitude. It was certainly a match that had its consequences, sowing the seeds as it did for Sir Clive Woodward's eventual departure.

The Irish have gone onwards and upwards ever since. If this is not the best green-shirted vintage since 1948, when Karl Mullen captained a side containing Jackie Kyle and the mould-breaking loose trio of Bill Mackay, Jimmy McCarthy and Des O'Brien to the Grand Slam, it is indisputably the finest since the 1972 act, which had Mike Gibson topping the bill above an outstanding, Lions-roaring pack boasting Ray McLoughlin, Willie John McBride and Fergus Slattery. Tomorrow's forward unit may not be in the same league, but it is substantially greater than the sum of its parts. The backs, meanwhile, are exceptional.

And England? Backwards and downwards, unfortunately. There is none of the old authority about them, and precious little of the over-my-dead-body approach defined and patented by Martin Osborne Johnson of Leicester and the world.

Martin Corry, a No 8 with his heart firmly in the right place, suggested this week that the autumn victory over South Africa was "somewhere close to where we're trying to get", but condemned as "unacceptable" the second-half performance against France last time out. Not even Corry, the conscience of this England team, could point to evidence of progress.

Pressed on his own state of mind, Robinson was characteristically bullish for a few seconds. "I'm not giving you lot a headline saying this is has been the toughest two weeks of my career, because it hasn't," he snapped. But he could not keep it up for long.

"Of course it's been tough," he admitted. "It's hard, losing games the way we've lost them recently. We're playing in fits and starts - a few good minutes here and there against Wales, a good first half against the French - rather than putting things together for the full 80 minutes, and because of that, we're being beaten on the small margins.

"Have I looked at myself? Of course. I'm the first person I look at when we lose. You can't take on a job like this and hide from the facts."

Having spent years under Woodward as a known quantity, England find themselves in an "anyone's guess" condition in virtually every area. Only the second-row pairing of Danny Grewcock and Ben Kay can be said to resemble a rock, rather than a sandcastle.

Jason Robinson's individualistic approach to the full-back position has become a hindrance, the midfield looks lightweight and there is precious little know-how at scrum-half. The back row, in a state of flux all season, has been further unsettled by Lewis Moody's problems with an infected finger. (Robinson will make a decision on the Leicester flanker today). And the front row? Matt Stevens, the new boy, is a gifted footballer, but he does not have an ounce of nasty in him - worrying, given that Lansdowne Road will be no place for nice people tomorrow.

Ireland, full of vim and vigour, start as favourites. For the first time in a sporting generation, they will take the field against England less in hope than in expectation, and if the "go-to" players - the Paul O'Connells and Anthony Foleys, not to mention the O'Driscolls - really get weaving, they could win by a dozen points or more. That, in turn, would set the cat amongst the pigeons, for the anti-Premiership forces within the Rugby Football Union will once again call for the central contracting of élite players, thereby ensuring another unholy scrap with the professional clubs.

There is little doubt that the Irish Test team has made capital from a centralised system; only yesterday, the Munster No 8 Foley could be heard extolling the virtues of a playing structure geared entirely and unashamedly towards success at international level. Ireland's rugby public may not enjoy the weekly fix of thud and blunder served up to all and sundry across the water, but the average man in O'Connell Street would probably sacrifice an entire season's provincial rugby in return for a comprehensive dismantling of England.

If the Premiership clubs crave a quiet life, they must pray that Robinson coaxes something remarkable from his charges tomorrow. A red rose victory is not beyond the realms of the possible, far from it. But there is no likelihood about it. Two years ago under Johnson, England pitched up in Dublin on Grand Slam business and swaggered their way to the Six Nations title, humiliating a decent Irish side and embarrassing their president, Mary McAleese, in the process. They could not have cared less who they upset that day, such was their air of inner strength.

Now, they would struggle to contribute more than half a dozen players to a composite Anglo-Irish team. The rugby world is shifting on its axis, and is tilting away from England. It will take a monumental effort to reverse the process.

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