Weight of public expectation threatens Irish ambitions

Six Nations' Championship: Grand Slam decider puts Dublin in state of fervour as Johnson's men look to rid themselves of unwanted tag
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The Independent Online

They say in these parts that when an Irish team denies England a Grand Slam, it is the second best feeling in the world – a one-liner so stingingly accurate that there is not a rugby community anywhere on the planet, from the valleys of Wales to the farmlands of New Zealand, who would not happily claim it as their own. Clive Woodward's championship favourites, top of the global ratings and brimming with a bulldog spirit that is all too easily mistaken for swaggering arrogance, are never the most popular arrivals in town. Any town. It is a fact of life, and one they must deal with at Lansdowne Road tomorrow afternoon.

They say in these parts that when an Irish team denies England a Grand Slam, it is the second best feeling in the world – a one-liner so stingingly accurate that there is not a rugby community anywhere on the planet, from the valleys of Wales to the farmlands of New Zealand, who would not happily claim it as their own. Clive Woodward's championship favourites, top of the global ratings and brimming with a bulldog spirit that is all too easily mistaken for swaggering arrogance, are never the most popular arrivals in town. Any town. It is a fact of life, and one they must deal with at Lansdowne Road tomorrow afternoon.

Woodward, who loves to wrap himself in the flag of St George, is up for the contest, as usual. "I'm pleased we're playing away from home: it's all there for us to say that we have a great team," the coach said yesterday. "The encouraging news for England is that people are talking about us. Three or four years ago, we weren't taken seriously; now, everyone is trying to spot our flaws. The more people have a go at us, the more I'm aware that we're getting under their skins. Good. It shows we're moving in the right direction. One of the reasons we would love to win this Grand Slam is that it would shut off another line of criticism."

Fighting talk. And England will need to fight tomorrow, not least because Ireland are within 80 minutes of the best feeling in the world, bar none: some Grand Slam ecstasy of their own. The uniqueness of the occasion – never in 120 years of championship rugby have these two nations engaged each other in a match of this magnitude – has led to the locals splashing out the best part of £1,000 for a black market terrace ticket in the blissful hope of seeing the Big Country brought to its knees. England are not simply playing 15 blokes in green shirts. To borrow Francois Pienaar's phrase from the 1995 World Cup, they are taking on an entire population.

What is more, it is a population with a new-found belief in the Almighty, who currently goes by the name of Brian O'Driscoll. Every second Dubliner seems to be wearing a T-shirt with the words "In BOD we trust" emblazoned across it. But if O'Driscoll, playing in his home city, has a following all to himself, he is far from alone in operating at a level not associated with an Irish vintage for the best part of two decades. Geordan Murphy, Denis Hickie, Malcolm O'Kelly and the new open-side bandit from the Leinster province, Keith Gleeson, have all been on fire during this Six Nations; in addition, Ireland will bring two match-winning outside-halves to the table in the contrasting shapes of David Humphreys and Ronan O'Gara.

No one seriously disputes that this is the most potent Irish team of the professional era, toughened by a ruthlessly élitist domestic set-up and imaginatively coached by Eddie O'Sullivan. And yet. The sight of O'Driscoll and Murphy, brilliant attackers both, kicking away hard-earned ball in Cardiff last weekend betrayed a nervousness born of public expectation – the great undoing of numerous fine sides down the generations. The main reason, perhaps the only reason, that Ireland are still waiting for a second Slam, more than half a century after the first, is that they cannot bear the burden of their own excellence.

If England hold their nerve – a big if, admittedly, in light of their repeated failures at the business end of Grand Slam campaigns – they should take advantage of this glitch in the Irish psyche. They are better and meaner in the tight five, although the recalled Ulsterman Gary Longwell will not give an inch, no matter many dark stares and big right-handers he receives from Martin Johnson; they have more flexibility in the back row, where Richard Hill is playing some wonderful stuff; and their wide finishers, Jason Robinson and Ben Cohen, are game-breakers who score tries for fun.

But it is far from correct to suggest that England will never have a better chance of righting the wrongs of the eight long years since they last completed a full house of championship victories. For all Woodward's bullishness about the joys of rugby travel, they would far sooner be playing this one at Twickenham. Indeed, they would rather be anywhere but here.

"I know nothing about rugby – never been to a match in my life," said a Dublin taxi driver yesterday morning. "But I'll be watching this time and, by Christ, I hope we beat you." With the two best feelings in the world on offer, there is not an Irishman alive who would have disagreed with him.

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