Woodward invests faith in youth

Two new caps may be key for England as they face an Ireland side set on achieving first win in London since 1994

Clive Woodward chose the eve of the inaugural Six Nations' Championship to announce that he would relish a second shot at World Cup glory in Australia in a little under four years' time, a declaration that will no doubt have exasperated the growing band of red rose sceptics who question whether he should be allowed to get as far as this coming Monday, let alone the autumn of 2003. The England coach has taken it squarely on the chin since the so-called "Boot of God" left him flirting dangerously with rugby's Grim Reaper in Paris last October, and defeat by Ireland today would up the ante far too significantly for whatever remains of his peace of mind.

Clive Woodward chose the eve of the inaugural Six Nations' Championship to announce that he would relish a second shot at World Cup glory in Australia in a little under four years' time, a declaration that will no doubt have exasperated the growing band of red rose sceptics who question whether he should be allowed to get as far as this coming Monday, let alone the autumn of 2003. The England coach has taken it squarely on the chin since the so-called "Boot of God" left him flirting dangerously with rugby's Grim Reaper in Paris last October, and defeat by Ireland today would up the ante far too significantly for whatever remains of his peace of mind.

The fact that the Irish genuinely believe that this 113th meeting between the white and the green has their name on it serves only to tighten the ratchet another notch or two. If England go belly-up today, they will not have a snowball's chance of surviving their return trip to the Stade de France a fortnight hence. Woodward would then be two-zip down, out of the championship running for the third time in three seasons and under all sorts of pressure to bow out, hand over the reins, vacate the hot seat or whatever it is failed head honchos do these days.

Except that Woodward has not performed nearly so badly as his critics like to make out. If his win-loss record looks fairly shabby on paper, very nearly half of the 28 Tests of his tenure thus far have been against the big three southern hemisphere nations - a far greater proportion than was ever encountered by Geoff Cooke or Jack Rowell. Those who accuse England of stumbling their way through a desperate World Cup campaign really mean that they suffered a desperate 80 minutes against South Africa. Martin Johnson's side put a total of 213 points past Italy, Tonga and Fiji - the Fijians, remember, were one of the success stories of the tournament - and lost a classic set-to with the All Blacks because some big bloke with an honours degree in déjà vu decided to revive the spirit of '95. It happens.

Meanwhile, more outstanding young talent has been fast-tracked into the red rose set-up than at any time in the post-war era. There are two new caps today in Mike Tindall and Ben Cohen, and there will be a third if Woodward decides that Iain Balshaw's footballing brilliance has more to recommend it than Cohen's route-one attributes of extreme pace and subLomuesque strength. What is more, David Flatman would almost certainly have embarked on his career as the new Jason Leonard - probably by replacing Jason Leonard himself - had he not injured himself in the Saracens-Northampton cup tie last weekend.

But the coach is uncomfortably aware that all this progress will count for nothing unless his young, vulnerable-looking side finish in credit this afternoon. Indeed, it is fair to suggest that Woodward will be every bit as on edge today as he was three-and-a-half months ago, when England and South Africa squared up to each other in their World Cup quarter-final. This is partly because every coach fears for his new caps, but more because he knows that Ireland have what might be called two-thirds of a decent chance of winning in London for the first time since 1994.

Four of the Irish tight forwards and at least three of their outside backs would push unusually hard for a place in this England side - a far cry from last season in Dublin, when only the front row would have fancied their chances. They are strong where England are most fragile: up at the sharp end, where Keith Wood is on a wonderful roll, and in midfield, where Mike Mullins and the exciting Brian O'Driscoll are capable of asking the kind of questions that Mike Catt, playing out of position, and the debutant Tindall might find difficult to answer at this juncture.

Yet the issue is likely to be decided in the remaining third: the middle five sector covering the loose forwards and half-backs. Here, England are incomparably stronger, especially as Neil Back's suspect fitness suggests that Joe Worsley, the form flanker in the Allied Dunbar Premiership, will get a run sooner rather than later. Once again, Ireland are going in against the old enemy without Eric Miller, whose new-age gifts appear to be lost on the national coach, Warren Gatland. Miller is precisely the kind of footballer who can go toe to toe with Richard Hill and Lawrence Dallaglio and still be standing at the final bell. Can the same truly be said of Dion O'Cuinneagain or Anthony Foley?

It will be an itchy one for Woodward this afternoon, and if things go wrong at six, seven and eight, the Irish will be a serious threat. All things being equal, though, Jonny Wilkinson should kick England to anarrow victory.

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