Six Nations: Ireland’s final shot at seizing redemption
At the start of the 2011 RBS Six Nations campaign many felt that Ireland versus England in Dublin on Saturday, March 19 might be a Grand Slam play-off.
Alas not, for while England have done what was required of them to ensure that their aspirations are intact going into the final match, Ireland’s ambitions in that direction disappeared when the French inflicted a 25-22 home defeat on the second weekend of the championship.
The controversial nature of last Saturday’s 19-13 defeat by Wales in Cardiff merely added insult to the self-inflicted injury of events four weeks earlier when Irish indiscipline handed France a win their play did not merit.
Last week’s Cardiff outcome also put paid to the idea of a Triple Crown to console Ireland.
Nevertheless tomorrow’s match is a huge one for both sides. Why?
Consider: if England complete their first Grand Slam in eight years, that would serve as a massive pre-World Cup boost in terms of their self-belief, and lay a platform on which they can build.
If Ireland win, however, that may serve to lend some credence to their insistence that they are still an excellent group of players who just happen to have lost two championship matches they ought to have won.
Okay, those two defeats ahead of England’s first trip to the revamped Lansdowne Road have robbed tomorrow’s match of its winner-takes-all spice.
Nevertheless it remains a highly significant pairing.
How could it be otherwise? As a result of history and geographic proximity to one another no competition involving these two countries will ever be reduced to mere fixture fulfilment status.
But those making their way to the Aviva Stadium tomorrow evening will do so in the hope of seeing tangible evidence of Irish captain Brian O’Driscoll’s assertion: “Anybody who thinks we are no-hopers against England needs to think again.”
Think? Well, a growing number are beginning to think that Ireland are on the way back down the hill, the crest of which they reached in 2009. Their fear is that, in reality, Ireland now are hoping for one last improbable wring of the sponge by the Golden Generation in the World Cup.
In support of their sobering theory they will point to this season’s steadily diminishing ambitions and reducing targets.
Following the defeat by France, the notion of a Grand Slam side in-waiting gave way to possible champions and Triple Crown winners. Then defeat by Wales put paid to both of those.
A third loss would mean three championship defeats for the first time since 2008 when Ireland — contrary to all expectations — came in fourth of the half-dozen runners, their worst finish in the history of a series now in its 12th season.
Then, too, they lost to France, Wales and England — in that order. An omen? Um.
Today Ireland again find themselves occupying the fourth of the six rungs of the ladder going into the final match. It is not what they had envisaged for themselves.
Yet their insistence that they are on the verge of producing something very, very special continues.
Despite evidence to the contrary the belief that they are destined to eradicate the mistakes, playing glorious 15-man rugby for 80 minutes and give somebody a hammering remains.
Kidney has said it, O’Driscoll has repeated it, the others have echoed the words of their coach and captain.
They will point to injury problems. No Stephen Ferris, Rob Kearney or Geordan Murphy for the duration. No Tommy Bowe for the first two matches. Big hits.
Problems at scrum-half with three different players deployed. Uncertainty at 10, too. Worrying.
Yet all of that said, Ireland lost to France because of indiscipline and to Wales not only as a result of a faux-pas by a touch-judge but because they failed to put their chances away. It ought never to have come down to Peter Allan’s howler in failing to spot the Welsh having used the wrong ball for a quickly-taken line-out.
Yes, Ireland would be delighted to rain on England’s Grand Slam parade tomorrow evening. But it would not change the fact that they are not the team they were in 2009.
IRELAND: K Earls (Munster); T Bowe (Ospreys), B O'Driscoll (Leinster, capt), G D'Arcy (Leinster), A Trimble (Ulster); J Sexton (Leinster), E Reddan (Leinster); C Healy (Leinster), R Best (Ulster), M Ross (Leinster), D O'Callaghan (Munster), P O'Connell (Munster), S O'Brien (Leinster), D Wallace (Munster), J Heaslip (Leinster).
Replacements: S Cronin (Connacht), T Court (Ulster), L Cullen (Leinster), D Leamy (Munster), P Stringer (Munster), R O'Gara (Munster), P Wallace (Ulster).
ENGLAND: B Foden (Northampton Saints); C Ashton (Northampton Saints), M Banahan (Bath Rugby), S Hape (Bath Rugby), M Cueto (Sale Sharks); T Flood (Leicester Tigers), B Youngs (Leicester Tigers); A Corbisiero (London Irish), D Hartley (Northampton Saints), D Cole (Leicester Tigers), L Deacon (Leicester Tigers), T Palmer (Stade Francais), T Wood (Northampton Saints), J Haskell (Stade Francais), N Easter (Harlequins, capt).
Replacements: S Thompson (Leeds Carnegie), P Doran-Jones (Gloucester), S Shaw (London Wasps), T Croft (Leicester Tigers), D Care (Harlequins), J Wilkinson (Toulon), D Strettle (Saracens).