All eyes of the world on Dublin
March 26, 2003
Ireland to hope to have even more to cheer when they face England in the Six Nations decider © Getty Images
Neil Back Shane Byrne Lawrence Dallaglio Keith Gleeson Will Greenwood Denis Hickie Richard Hill Martin Johnson Jason Leonard Dan Luger Kevin Maggs Geordan Murphy Paul O'Connell Brian O'Driscoll Malcolm O'Kelly Mike Tindall Phil Vickery Jonny Wilkinson
This Sunday all the eyes of the rugby loving world will be focused on a packed Lansdowne Road as preparations for this year's World Cup are cranked up a couple of gears.
Ireland entertain England in not only a Six Nations Championship winner-takes-all, nor just a mere Grand Slam decider but also in a true test of both country's - and specifically England's - World Cup aspiratons.
Concentrating on the 'smaller' picture, England have of course been here before. In 1999, 2000 and 2001 Clive Woodward's side have been within touching distance of the elusive Grand Slam but have been gazumped by Wales, Scotland and Ireland respectively.
But on none of the afore mentioned occasions have they found themselves entering the last game of the Championship facing a side with a worthy claim to the title themselves. England maybe the bookies favourites, but many including this author have had their fingers burnt there before, and Ireland can quite rightly feel confident of completing their first Grand Slam in 55 years and only their second ever.
The atmosphere at Lansdowne Road is sure to be a key factor and it will be a true test of both side's ability to perform under such great pressure. Looking at the bigger, this game can be seen as a true indicator of whether Clive Woodward's side have the bottle to fulfil their potential.
Tales of 'Fortress Twickenham' have filled endless column inches and just as many have questioned England's ability to transfer that form away from home. With the challenge in Australia looming large, a balmy day in Dublin for cracking running rugby will go a long way to answering the big question - can England claim the game's biggest crown on someone else's turf?
And what of Ireland's chances at the big party later this year? Do not forget they have already taken the scalp of the current World Champions at Lansdowne Road in recent months so the possibility of adding that of the world's best team on current form is not a distant dream.
Either way you can bet that Australian Rugby Union supremo and Wallaby coach Eddie Jones will be keen observers. The former has already tipped England as favourites for the World Cup and more recently called for a seedings review on the back of Ireland's impressive form of late.
The prospect of facing an Ireland side fresh from Six Nations glory obviously has the ARU boss a little worried as does the thought of losing the William Webb Ellis Cup to England on home soil - wouldn;t that be a turn up for the books considering the 'Poms'' fortunes against Australia on all sporting fields of late.
A fascinating battle will be served up between the captains. The stalwart Johnson, significantly leading England into a Grand Slam clash for the first time, and the youngster O'Driscoll. It should be a fascinating battle of wills between the two-time British & Irish Lions skipper and his Irish counterpart, my bet to lead the representative side to New Zealand in 2007.
Woodward must be overjoyed to have Johnson at the helm for the game having had to suffer without his services on the three previous occasions. And expect the Tigers lock to lead by example all over the field from start to finish. O'Driscoll may have excelled in the absence of hooker Keith Wood but, despite Shane Byrne's top class contribution throughout the Championship, they will miss the passion and drive Wood most memorably provided in spoiling England's party in 2001.
Whatever the result, the game is sure to serve as a great advert for what is to come later this year. And a fine day in Dublin should provide the pefect stage for the two most exciting back divisions in World rugby at the moment to show us exactly what they've got in their respective lockers.
So who will claim the glory? A huge question and one I have pondered over a great deal. Despite having to face the cauldron that will be Lansdowne Road I believe England will finally lay their ghost to rest and clinch the Grand Slam. They may deserve it as Woodward claims, but that will count for nothing on Sunday. Expect his side to step up to the challenge and excel and in doing so put down the most impressive marker yet ahead of the World Cup.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.