Ireland favourites to keep dream alive
February 26, 2009
England's Mike Tindall reflects on his side's record defeat at Croke Park in 2007 © Getty Images
Ireland's latest quest for a long-awaited second Grand Slam resumes with the visit of England to Croke Park on Saturday.
Victories over France and Italy have raised hopes once again of their first clean sweep since 1948, and first Championship success since 1985, but Irish fans have been here many times before over the last 61-years - most recently in 2007 when France ended their hopes in dramatic fashion. But the signs are good for Ireland and reports that this 'golden generation' have wasted their chance of glory appear premature.
England return to Dublin for the first time since one of the darkest hours in their recent history. The 43-13 defeat they suffered on their first visit to Croke Park in 2007 was both their heaviest loss to Ireland and their record Championship defeat. A much-criticised showing in their opening victory over Italy was followed by an improved performance in defeat to Wales but they remain firm underdogs against the in-form Irish and must conjure another step up in class if they are to beat an Irish side brimming with confidence.
Both sides will have welcomed the break offered by the Six Nations schedule after bruising encounters earlier this month. Ireland had to withstand a physical onslaught against the Azzurri in Rome that knocked the visitors off their stride and that tactic will not have been lost on England - but don't expect such a blatant statement of intent. They regained their composure to claim an emphatic victory but showed only glimpses of the exciting form that accounted for France. England went toe-to-toe with Wales in Cardiff but gained nothing but praise and battered limbs for their trouble.
Once again it was England's disciplinary woes that stole the headlines with yellow cards for Andy Goode and Mike Tindall taking their tally to 8 in three matches and more of the same will not only see England castigated from all quarters but punished a little more immediately by a side with a hunger for running rugby.
All eyes will be on referee Craig Joubert in the opening exchanges as he lays the law down but more telling will be England's response to any warnings. They failed to heed warnings from Joubert's compatriot Jonathan Kaplan last time out that cost them dear. They rallied in the face of adversity at the Millennium Stadium with a brave defensive display, spearheeaded by tackling machine Joe Worsley, and created two tries to offer seeds of hope but they remain limited. Worsley will need to have another stand-out performance and drag his team mates with him if England are to upset the odds.
Ireland coach Declan Kidney has kept faith with the side that weathered an unseasonal storm in Rome with the only change in the squad the addition of lock Mick O'Driscoll to the bench at the expense of Malcolm O'Kelly.
Fly-half Ronan O'Gara joins the exclusive 90+ cap club, joining his skipper Brian O'Driscoll, prop John Hayes and O'Kelly, and will be expected to pull the strings against England as he goes in search of the Championship scoring record. Just 11 points will see O'Gara usurp England's Jonny Wilkinson, who remains sidelined through injury, in the record books. The Munsterman has already racked up 15 points against France and 11 points against Italy in this year's Championship and he may well have further cause to celebrate come Saturday night. If not on Saturday, the record is surely his for the taking and it will be due reward for his consistency in emerald green.
The potent Irish backline were shackled for much of their clash against Italy but still racked up five tries taking their season tally to eight. Home advantage and their opponents are sure to revitalise the side with the likes of fullback Rob Kearney, wingers Luke Fitzgerald and Tommy Bowe and the re-born O'Driscoll set to be more than a handful for England.
England manager Martin Johnson has restored Toby Flood to fly-half in the only, albeit significant, change to the side that tested Wales. Flood, who missed the Championship opener with a calf injury, is promoted from the bench with Andy Goode named amongst the replacements. The switch underlines Johnson's belief that Flood is his first-choice at No.10 and he will be expected to re-pay that faith by keeping Ireland on the back foot while providing England with an all-too-rare cutting edge. England struggled to find any real direction with an ineffective kicking game against Wales and it will be interesting to see if Flood can turn things around.
Amazingly, England have now changed their starting fly-half seven times and used five different players in 10 Test matches, dating back to when Jonny Wilkinson last wore the shirt in 2008 and they have suffered for it.
Success for England would be as surprising as a single-figure penalty count but Ireland should expect a ferocious challenge up front and at the set-piece. The men in green have dominated this fixture of late, last year's disappointing defeat at Twickenham being their only loss in their last five meetings, and signs are that they will edge nearer to a Championship showdown with Wales next month with victory on Saturday night.
Ireland: Robert Kearney (UCD - Leinster), Tommy Bowe (Ospreys), Brian O'Driscoll (UCD - Leinster, capt), Paddy Wallace (Ballymena - Ulster), Luke Fitzgerald (Blackrock College - Leinster), Ronan O'Gara (Cork Constitution - Munster), Tomas O'Leary (Dolphin - Munster), Marcus Horan (Shannon - Munster), Jerry Flannery (Shannon - Munster), John Hayes (Bruff- Munster), Donncha O'Callaghan (Cork Constitution - Munster), Paul O'Connell (Young Munster - Munster), Stephen Ferris (Dungannon - Ulster), David Wallace (Garryowen - Munster), Jamie Heaslip (Naas - Leinster)
Replacements: Rory Best (Banbridge - Ulster), Tom Court (Malone - Ulster), Mick O'Driscoll (Cork Constitution - Munster), Denis Leamy (Cork Constitution - Munster), Peter Stringer (Shannon - Munster), Gordon D'Arcy (Lansdowne - Leinster), Geordan Murphy (Leicester)
England: Delon Armitage (London Irish); Paul Sackey (Wasps), Mike Tindall (Gloucester), Riki Flutey (Wasps), Mark Cueto (Sale Sharks); Toby Flood (Leicester), Harry Ellis (Leicester); Andrew Sheridan (Sale Sharks), Lee Mears (Bath), Phil Vickery (Wasps), Steve Borthwick (Saracens, capt), Nick Kennedy (London Irish), James Haskell (Wasps), Joe Worsley (Wasps), Nick Easter (Harlequins).
Replacements: Dylan Hartley (Northampton), Julian White (Leicester), Tom Croft (Leicester), Luke Narraway (Gloucester), Danny Care (Harlequins), Andy Goode (Brive), Matthew Tait (Sale Sharks).
Referee: Craig Joubert (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Christophe Berdos (France), Peter Allan (Scotland)
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