The Twickenham crowd is not what it used to be. For one thing, of course, it is bigger than ever, at 82,000, and there are growing signs that it is less sophisticated. For goalkickers who fail there is zero tolerance; you only have to look at Charlie Hodgson, who has been given a hard time in recent seasons. He doesn't like the place.
Even last week, when Jonny Wilkinson was hacking away at Scotland's resistance, there was, incredibly, an air of disapproval at some of the decisions to kick for goal as England built a winning lead in the second half. Yet penalties are as important as ever. The championship in 1966 saw an average of two tries per game and 1.6 penalties; last year the figures were 4.1 and 4.9 respectively. The five-point try has not made the role of the goalkicker any less sacrosanct. Indeed, Ireland and Munster could not imagine taking the field without Ronan O'Gara.
When Ireland won the Triple Crown last season O'Gara - he usually kicks in such deafening silence you can hear a pint drop - scored a record 76 points, including 17 penalties, which was another Irish milestone. Few marksmen go to work without an armourer, and O'Gara is no exception. What is exceptional, though, is that the Irish employ an Englishman, Mark Tainton, and he was headhunted for the job.
Long before the game went professional Tainton was a goal-kicking stand-off for Bristol, and he is still in the record books, with 637 points and 165 penalties. As the art evolved - long gone are the days when a kicker would make an indent with the heel of his boot on which to place the ball, toss up a blade of grass and let fly - he became a specialist coach.
When Bristol, then coached by Dean Ryan, played Munster in a pre-season friendly six years ago, O'Gara asked Tainton if he would be interested in taking a few kicking sessions. One thing led to another, and by 2003 Tainton was not only working for Munster but was involved with Ireland in the Six Nations and the World Cup in Australia, where the Irish were going well until they fell to France 43-21 in the quarter-finals in Melbourne.
With Lansdowne Road being redeveloped, Ireland break new ground today when they play France at the Gaelic Athletic Association's Croke Park in Dublin. "Lansdowne Road was the most difficult ground for kickers I've ever been to," Tainton said. "The wind blew in four different directions simultaneously. It's going to be a momentous day at Croke Park, but it's a horseshoe stadium that's going to provide us with different challenges. We've trained there a couple of times when there was no wind and conditions were perfect."
Yesterday the Ireland squad watched the England-Italy and Scotland-Wales matches, having already accounted for the Welsh the previous week in Cardiff, where they scored three tries to nil. "It was one of the most physical games I've ever seen," Tainton said, "and we took control in the second half and played smart rugby." Triple Crowns are fine, but Ireland are after a championship they have not won since 1985. Can an Irish side without their injured talisman Brian O'Driscoll pull it off?
"I believe so," Tainton said. "We need to avoid further injuries and play to the top of our game, but there's enough confidence and ability there to achieve our goal. The preparation has been brilliant. We've done our homework on the French and our focus is on breaking down their defence. They'll probably hit a purple patch at some point, but then so will we."
Since 2005 O'Gara's success rate with the boot has risen from 60 to 80 per cent. "I have a technique now that I feel is bullet- proof," the stand-off said. Tainton has helped provide the armour. "I spent a lot of time studying American football, where they analyse everything," the 41- year-old Bristolian, who still lives in the city, said. "You can apply biomechanics to rugby and through body movement, weight, timing and leg speed get greater distance with minimal effort. Ronan knows what his perfect kick is. If he takes 50 kicks at goal in practice and 48 go over he wants to go through the video and work out why the two went awry. He's after perfection, and that applies to his kicking out of hand as well. When it comes to tactical kicking Ronan is out there on his own."
By rights Tainton should be working with Bristol - "I watch them every time I get a free weekend" - or England, who now use Jon Callard as a kicking coach after dispensing with Dave Alred. In 1997, when Alred was on the Lions tour to South Africa, Tainton was employed by the then England coach, Jack Rowell, for the tour to Argentina. His CV also includes a spell at Oxford University and Richmond, before the Premiership club were dissolved.
"That was an awful time," he admitted. "We were doing well and had a lot of good players when the plug was pulled. We had to move on, and for me things have worked out well. I'm working with a great bunch of players. It's testing and they're always asking questions of you. They know what they want."
So Mark, who is the best goalkicker you have ever seen? "Going back a bit, Grant Fox and Michael Lynagh were excellent and today Ronan is up there with Jonny Wilkinson and Daniel Carter, but when Matt Burke was in his prime for Australia his technique was faultless."
CROKE PARK LINE-UPS
15 G Dempsey (Leinster)
14 G Murphy (Leicester)
13 G D'Arcy (Leinster)
12 S Horgan (Leinster)
11 D Hickie (Leinster)
10 R O'Gara (Munster)
9 I Boss (Ulster)
1 M Horan (Munster)
2 R Best (Ulster)
3 J Hayes (Munster)
4 D O'Callaghan (Munster)
5 P O'Connell (Munster, capt)
6 S Easterby (Llanelli Scarlets)
8 D Leamy (Munster)
7 D Wallace (Munster)
Replacements: 16 J Flannery (Munster), 17 S Best (Ulster), 18 N Best (Ulster), 19 M O'Driscoll (Munster), 20 E Reddan (Wasps), 21 P Wallace (Ulster), 22 A Trimble (Ulster)
15 C Poitrenaud (Toulouse)
14 V Clerc (Toulouse)
13 D Marty (Perpignan)
12 Y Jauzion (Toulouse)
11 C Dominici (Stade Français)
10 D Skrela (Stade Français)
9 P Mignoni (Clermont-Auvergne)
1 S Marconnet (Stade Français)
2 R Ibañez (Wasps, capt)
3 P de Villiers (Stade Français)
4 L Nallet (Castres)
5 P Papé (Castres)
6 S Betsen (Biarritz)
8 S Chabal (Sale)
7 I Harinordoquy (Biarritz)
Replacements: 16 S Bruno (Sale), 17 O Milloud (Bourgoin), 18 J Thion (Biarritz), 19 J Bonnaire (Bourgoin), 20 D Yachvili (Biarritz), 21 L Beauxis (Stade Français), 22 C Heymans (Toulouse)
Referee: S Walsh (New Zealand)
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