Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 20 April 2014

Tyrone Howe: Is it right to risk the World for a belter?

DUBLIN, IRELAND - MARCH 19: Nick Easter of England is stopped by Gordon D'Arcy (L) and Brian O'Driscoll (L) of Ireland during the RBS 6 Nations Championship match between Ireland and England at the Aviva Stadium on March 19, 2011 in Dublin, Ireland. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

What was your rugby highlight of last season? Ulster’s quarter final battle against Northampton in the knock-out stages of the Heineken Cup? Leinster’s incredible second-half comeback in the Heineken Cup Final and triumph over the same side?

Or maybe, as I suspect, Ireland’s utter demolition and virtual humiliation of England in the final round of the Six Nations?

For me, it is definitely the last of the three — over-confident England coming to the Aviva stadium looking for a Grand Slam title only to be slain over a most intoxicating and enthralling 80 minutes by a Brian O’Driscoll led Ireland, with the skipper breaking the Championship record with his 25th try.

And let’s not overlook our own Tommy Bowe’s superb try. It was one-way traffic and must have inflicted serious hurt on the English players involved. For this reason, no matter what the coaches might say, the sub-plot of this Saturday’s match betwen the countries goes far beyond a World Cup warm-up.

For England, what will really focus minds is the opportunity to achieve early redemption from their ‘no-show’ less than six months ago.

Of course, much depends on the dilemma of selection. With the World Cup squads announced, do Martin Johnson and Declan Kidney give their full strength sides a final run out and risk injury to key players or go for a hybrid XV?

No matter who takes the pitch, the Ireland players need a win badly. To lose to a side you last beat by more than two scores would be a retrograde step and serious questions would be asked. No matter what the rhetoric, confidence would surely be dented.

Nonetheless, warm-up matches are one of the greatest examples of a phoney war. You can dissect and critique as much as you want, but ultimately it counts for little.

The only real scrutiny that a coach and his players will come under will be in the tournament itself. Despite the losses against Scotland and France, Ireland’s World Cup path is well defined.

One crucial game in the pool stages against Australia and then it’s on to knockout rugby. I am discounting Italy (something Ireland clearly cannot afford to do) because if Kidney’s men cannot overcome the Azzurri then there is little point harbouring any ambition in the first place.

Warm-up games do have their place, however. Four years ago, under Eddie O’Sullivan, Ireland went into the tournament undercooked. This time the other end of the spectrum has been visited in a seriously demanding three week schedule.

Personally, I think Declan Kidney has gone too far the other way. Wales and England chose three games, which I believe is the ideal amount, as it allows for quality game time while reducing the chance of losing players through injury.

Both teams have still suffered and it will torment the likes of Danny Care and Morgan Stoddard to watch the action from the stands rather than active participants.

In this regard, Ireland have been fortunate that, in Felix Jones, they have only lost one player. One hopes that, given the punishing schedule, there are not further players ruled out after Saturday. It is a risky business.

In many ways, the dynamics going into this Saturday’s game are similar to those prior to the Six Nations meeting.

Six months ago, having lost to France and Wales, Ireland were under real pressure to deliver an emphatic performance — the same situation exists now and the team needs to send out a clear and resounding message that they will be able to push and overcome some of the top sides in the world.

While I expect Ireland to emerge victorious, it should be a much closer game than in March earlier this year.

Above all, England’s mental wounds are sufficiently fresh to ensure it should be a belter of a game.