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Ireland need a World Cup boost

By Niall Crozier

Irish supporters' fingers will be tightly crossed that their heroes emerge from this afternoon's Aviva Stadium clash against England with nothing more than the normal bumps and bruises.

Stephen Ferris, Tommy Bowe, Jerry Flannery, David Wallace and Geordan Murphy all get their first starts of the campaign and with Ireland's departure for the World Cup now only three days away, it is imperative that they come through intact.

It is 18 months since hooker Flannery last started an international game. In the cases of Ferris and Murphy, nine months have elapsed since they last ran out as Test match starters.

With Brian O'Driscoll (shoulder), Sean O'Brien (knee) and Rob Kearney (groin) all sidelined, Ireland can ill-afford any further injury setbacks.

That said, do not expect this afternoon's clash with England to be anything other than the usual full-blooded, wholly-committed, passionate affair.

As well as being against the opponents Ireland most enjoy beating, this afternoon's tete-a-tete is hugely significant for several reasons.

First and foremost, Ireland need a result. Badly. Following the highs of 2009 during which Ireland were unbeaten in a 10-match run which saw them win a Grand Slam and beat World Cup-holders, South Africa, their form has dipped somewhat.

Defeat in seven of their last 12 international matches - four in their last five - means the confidence and belief of Declan Kidney and his players cannot but have suffered, despite protestations to the contrary.

I say that without fear of correction for the simple reason that professional sport is a results-driven industry and anyone who would try to argue otherwise is deluded, disingenuous or plain stupid.

Results are the yardstick against which progress and efficiency are measured and with the outcome of the majority of their matches having been negative, currently Ireland are found wanting.

This month has seen them drop from fourth to seventh in the world rankings, with France, England and Wales having climbed above them and Scotland now hard on their tail. That is the harsh pre-World Cup reality.

So too is the fact that while all four of those countries have won World Cup warm-up Test matches, Ireland have yet to do so.

Today is their final chance and it is important that they take it, for to arrive in New Zealand following defeats by Scotland, France (twice) and England would be a dreadful World Cup launch-pad.

More than anything right now, what Ireland need is a good, victory-yielding performance and to then bank the mighty boost that would give them in view of the particular pleasure they take from beating England.

However, defeat by the English - whom they trounced 24-8 on March 19 past, denying them a Triple Crown and Grand Slam - would be a crushing psychological blow at this vital stage.

Today's contest will be hugely physical, not only up front but in midfield, too, where England are deploying battering-ram centres in Leicester's Manu Tuilagi and London Irish's Mike Tindall who captains them in the absence of Lewis Moody.

Certainly Gordon D'Arcy and Keith Earls will have their work cut out in attempting to win that battle, but win it they must.

Where Ireland do have match-winners is in their back three. Bowe's record against England is excellent, witness two tries in the 20-16 Twickenham triumph in 2010 and a further touchdown in March past in Dublin.

On-song Andrew Trimble is Kidney's flavour of the month while Leicester's Geordan Murphy knows all about the opponents.

"It's great to get the nod to start for the England game and hopefully get another 80 minutes under my belt before we fly out next Tuesday," Murphy said.

"I think this will be our toughest test as England have made big strides in the past 12 months and like Paulie (O'Connell) said, they always bring a physicality that you have to match."

The head-to-head of the 10s promises to be a dual of real kicking quality.

Jonny Wilkinson and Ronan O'Gara stand second and fourth in the world for Test match scoring with 1141 and 1022 points for England and Ireland respectively.

Ireland field 11 of the 15 who started that evening in March and they must recapture the form of that occasion in order to yield a much-needed World Cup boost.

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