by Conor O'Shea
Saturday's Ireland v England match is one to looks forward to on a number of levels.
It will be different to 2007 as even though is will be another great Croke Park occasion it will not carry with it the historical context as that game. Everyone will be able to relax and enjoy things a little more. We can and should never take for granted the service the GAA did for sport in this country by opening the gates of Croke Park to rugby and soccer and the history of this great stadium will never be far from our thoughts, but the first games were always going to carry more weight. We are all familiar with the environs and the occasion now.
The next reason to look forward to next week is that we should have two teams looking to play rugby. Ireland were brilliant against France but – like England – they were made to work and scrap against Italy. Italy look to make every game a dogfight and drag the game and their opposition down to their level. They didn’t manage to do that to Ireland but it wasn’t a nice game to watch and Ireland weren’t at their best. I believe that the real Ireland was the one we saw against France and that that team will once again resurface next weekend.
Though they won well, Martin Johnson’s England arrive having being castigated for their win against the Mauro Bergamasco inspired Italy (!) and then praised in defeat to Wales. After Wales, the post-match video session will have been interesting viewing for Johnson and his coaches. They will see that when Leigh Halfpenny scored just after half time with Andy Goode in the sin bin, England looked dead and buried. To their credit, they refused to roll over. The coaches will also note how when Toby Flood came on for Goode at out-half, a new England playing the rugby favoured by attack coach Brian Smith emerged.
Flood Brings Width To England Game
One change in such a crucial position brought a width to their game that you will never get with Goode, and width is what Smith, a former Ireland out-half and London Irish coach, brings to a team as a coach. I have no doubt that Goode would not be a Brian Smith selection but as a selector, but Smith was never going to go in firing both barrels straight away. However, the Italy performance will have given him the ammunition to go to a selection meeting and say "if we are going to go down lets go down playing".
Goode’s yellow – England’s eighth in their last three matches – was the final straw and Smith finally got his way. Granted, Danny Cipriani’s extended recovery period from his horrific injury has robbed them of their number one choice but it is the philosophy of the selections that counts. Flood will try things and ask questions. Andy Goode is a decent player but not a ten to build a team around and by releasing him back to Brive, England have indicated that Flood will get the nod.
That means England will come to play, and with a decent break and a reasonable number of training sessions, they won’t be like the class of 2007. The other interesting thing to note is the bench? If Goode is picked, then you can take it that Smith is still not getting his way completely. If it is Cipriani – who has been in more consistent form for Wasps these past two weeks – then the transformation is underway.
Clash Of Locks Key To Match
Another interesting selection will be at lock and this is where Ireland will have a real advantage next week. It is likely to be Paul O’Connell and Donncha O’Callaghan versus Steve Borthwick and the Irish qualified Nick Kennedy. To me the Irish pairing are as good as they come in terms of physicality whereas the English duo are too alike. For London Irish, Kennedy and Bob Casey dominate teams. I hope Bob won’t take offence when I say he does a huge amount of the tight graft work allowing Nick Kennedy to terrorise teams at line out and around the pitch. The problem for England is that both Borthwick and Kennedy want to do the same thing and an even bigger problem is that Kennedy does things better than his partner and captain.
This is Martin Johnson’s big dilemma: he has invested and trusted in Borthwick as captain but does he deserve his place in the team? True, their aren’t a lot of options in that enforcer role that Johnson used play in his heyday but it is a problem for the team as it weakens their front five and it is an area that Ireland can target and get dominance. Do that and we will on our way to winning a cracking game of rugby!
Defensive strategy is another key to the game. England defence coach Mike Ford, who knows Ireland well from his days here, will not give us the same space that France did defensively but neither will they employ the blitz defence that Italy used. We will have some room to play our game in the backs and here, I expect Declan Kidney to make his only change to the team and bring back in Gordon D’arcy to the team alongside Brian O’Driscoll. That would be hard on Paddy Wallace but like D’Arcy, even if he isn’t selected to start, he will definitely have a part to play in the game.
O'Leary Likely To Win Scrum-half Debate
The only other selection debate seems to be surrounding scrum half but I don’t think the management will give it anything other than a cursory glance and Tomas O’Leary will hold on to the number nine jersey. Peter Stringer just won’t go away – and why should he - but O’Leary is offering a lot at the moment. Stringer in the blue jersey of Leinster next year would be an interesting sight unleashing the Leinster backs…..
There are lots of themes and plots emerging and they will come into sharper focus later in the week when the teams are picked.
It will be a fitting match to finish off a great weekend of rugby starting with the under pressure France against current Champions Wales on Friday night. The wooden spoon clash of Scotland Italy also looks like the perfect curtain raiser to the big one.
I can’t wait: weekends like this are why we love the Six Nations.