Tyrone Howe: Our campaign hinges on win over England
The psyche of Irish rugby supporters over the years has been fairly clear. We can forgive our men almost anything as long as they beat England in the Six Nations.
The same narrow view also applies to our Celtic neighbours, Scotland and Wales. Thank goodness, we have become used to far loftier ambitions and expectations, however in terms of this year’s Championship it might not be too far from the truth.
The toothless manner of victory against Italy and defeat in Paris 10 days ago has meant that the Irish team is under serious pressure not only to win at Twickenham but to produce a performance.
The juicy sub-plot is that England are in exactly the same position. Their poor showing against the Italians had the critics once again questioning the credentials of some of the players, but in particular the English coaching set-up and the atmosphere and rugby culture they are creating at the national level.
Talk to either Declan Kidney or Martin Johnson and you will find a rather more straightforward approach. This game is about victory. Nothing more, nothing less. For Ireland, two successive defeats would signal a real harsh dose of reality after a year of unbeaten international rugby. Crucially, both Wales and Scotland would come across to Croke Park with renewed confidence that they could take advantage of confidence at a low unseen in Irish rugby for a long time. For this reason, the Ireland coach would be more than happy to face the challenge of putting his own unique spin on a boring game as long as Ireland come out on the right side.
Equally, no matter what, Martin Johnson can face down his critics if he has three victories and an unbeaten run to his name. England are not in the best shape, but they did leave some try-scoring opportunities behind at the Stadio Flaminio in Rome. A slight shift in accuracy and execution, and we might have seen a smile on Johnno’s face.
Both coaches have taken an approach which sends out a message that they have faith in their players. The English selection, which sees an unchanged XV, reflects the feeling that much was right in Italy even if the floodgates did not open. By bringing back Donncha |O’Callaghan and pitching |Geordan Murphy straight into the action, Kidney is reverting to players whom he knows so well and believes will not let him down.
Injury to Rob Kearney meant that a big call had to be made in the back three but I might have been more tempted to bring Shane Horgan onto the wing. Call it superstition but he has a terrific record against England and seems to love Twickenham.
Alternatively I believe that Tommy Bowe, who has the dubious honour of being Ireland’s most dangerous but underutilised back, would make a great fullback. Safe under the high ball, a solid kicker and a mazy and pacey counterattacker, the Monaghan man is the sort of player who can get you back across the gain line in defence but also hit great angles at speed in attack.
The game will inevitably revolve around the form of the two Johnnys — Sexton and Wilkinson. It is a good call by Kidney to bring the young Leinster out half in for this game. He has proved in the recent past that he can perform under the brightest of spotlights and this apprentice will relish a crack at another so-called Master in JW.
Sexton would have benefited from having his Leinster teammate, Eoin Reddan, inside him at scrum half. The provincial understanding between these two players along with Jamie Heaslip would create an extremely strong link in the chain of the Irish team. However, it comes as no surprise that Kidney has resisted the temptation to make too many changes.
Much work will have been done on the defensive midfield set-up between Brian O’Driscoll and Gordon D’Arcy and I expect little leakage in that area.
It is in the pack that England will try to batter Ireland. In true Martin Johnson style we can expect a war of attrition and it is imperative that Ireland come out of the physical exchanges in better shape than against France.
Achieve this and another green day for Irish supporters will be on the cards. Struggle up front and England, despite their shortcomings, can spoil the party.