Six Nations: Ireland must show they are not on slide
Today, Ireland face what is arguably their most important match since Declan Kidney took up the reins as head coach.
Understandably, when it comes to applying ‘most important match’ labels, many would point to last March’s Grand Slam-clinching game in Cardiff. I fully respect their view; that was indeed a hugely important milestone.
But be it joy or woe, the outcome of this afternoon’s Twickenham date may, I believe, prove to be even more significant than March 21, 2009 in terms of where Ireland go next. For win or lose, it has huge ramifications.
Last year was the crest of a wave which had been rolling for some time. Ireland’s success in winning the Grand Slam was the culmination of much hard work and the creation of a winning mentality based on consistently good results, a fact borne out by Triple Crown victories in 2004, 2006 and 2007.
It wasn’t a one-off and it wasn’t all down to Kidney, a fact the coach – to his credit - stressed in the midst of the euphoria 11 months ago when he acknowledged the foundations laid and the up-to-roof-level brickwork carried out by his predecessor, Eddie O’Sullivan.
The Grand Slam party was followed by away wins in late May by a much-depleted Irish side over Canada and the USA, plus home victories over Fiji and South Africa after a 20-20 draw in the opening match of the autumn series.
A not particularly impressive Croke Park win against Italy in the champions’ first defence of their RBS 6 Nations title was followed by a 33-10 pounding by France in Paris two weeks ago.
And that is why I believe today’s game against England to be so very important. In Kidney’s own words: “Failure does not come from having fallen; failure is in not getting up again.”
If Ireland win, Stade de France can be dismissed as one of those days. If they lose, however, that would give rise to real doubts as to how many miles are left in this particular Irish engine. Certainly it would seriously undermine any claim that Ireland are genuine contenders for the big prizes, the biggest of which will be up for grabs in little over a year’s time in New Zealand.
As a result of losing to France, Ireland have dropped from fourth to fifth in the IRB world rankings, with England sitting right on their shoulder.
So today isn’t just about beating the old enemy; it’s about defining where this particular Irish team stands. Has it peaked? If not, then realistically how much longer can it go on, particularly with 2011 in mind?
Those are the questions which make today’s performance and result so important. The French exposed frailties and now Kidney and his team must respond.
But it’s a big day too for his English counterpart, Martin Johnson. He did not have a good autumn – Australia and New Zealand totally outplayed his side – and although England’s Six Nations record thus far is played two, won two, they were singularly unimpressive in limping to victory against the Italians in their most recent outing.
The question the English are asking is whether or not they have a team making genuine progress and if the answer is yes, are they doing it quickly enough?
With more players than any country in the world, England ought not to be sixth in the rankings. That represents underachievement and no-one knows that more than Johnson, a winner and a very proud man.
If they are to do Ireland damage, they know they must get the 10-12 axis working. Jonny Wilkinson has been a magnificent player and Riki Flutey is an excellent inside centre. But I believe the fly-half has exceeded his best before date, for which reason England ought to be looking for his successor in order to give him a chance to build a partnership with Flutey.
While this will be Irish tighthead John Hayes’s 100th cap, England number three Dan Cole will be winning only his second. Ireland will target him.
With the expectation being that each of the protagonists will win ball from their own setpiece, that means everything will hinge on performance around the fringes, at the breakdown and in contact.
Wilkinson versus Sexton off the tee? I’m inclined to back the younger man.
Indeed, provided Ireland are able to pick themselves up after Paris and perform as they can, I believe they will win by virtue of their greater number of men of proven big match temperament.
But they must release quick ball in order to maximise the quality in their back line. For if they allow themselves to be drawn into a slow, forward slog, they will lose.
Ireland: G Murphy (Leicester); T Bowe (Ospreys), B O'Driscoll (Leinster, capt), G D'Arcy (Leinster), K Earls (Munster); J Sexton (Leinster), T O'Leary (Munster); C Healy (Leinster), R Best (Ulster), J Hayes (Munster), D O'Callaghan (Munster), P O'Connell (Munster), S Ferris (Ulster), D Wallace (Munster), J Heaslip (Leinster).
Replacements: S Cronin (Connacht), T Buckley (Munster), L Cullen (Leinster), S Jennings (Leinster), E Reddan (Leinster), R O'Gara (Munster), A Trimble (Ulster).
ENGLAND: D Armitage (London Irish); M Cueto (Sale Sharks), M Tait (Sale Sharks), R Flutey (Brive), U Monye (Harlequins); J Wilkinson (Toulon), D Care (Harlequins); T Payne (Wasps), D Hartley (Northampton), D Cole (Leicester), S Shaw (Wasps), S Borthwick (Saracens, captain), J Haskell (Stade Francais), L Moody (Leicester), N Easter (Harlequins).
Replacements: L Mears (Bath), D Wilson (Bath), L Deacon (Leicester), J Worsley (Wasps), P Hodgson (London Irish), T Flood (Leicester), B Foden (Northampton).