Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Ireland v England: This Time, It's For Real

Tommy Bowe, the Hound of Ulster, catches a hould of Nick Easter at Twickers last year
Declan Kidney will name his team for Saturday’s game against England at lunchtime today. Unlike the embarrassing hype-fest of two years ago, the game on Saturday evening will be played for huge stakes.

The first reason is because Ireland are still on track for the Grand Slam. One of the reasons why all that blather two years ago was so nauseous was because the Slam had already been lost, when the Irish lost to the French in the first game of rugby played in Croke Park; the pressure was off Ireland, as 2007 was another year when the Golden Generation wasn’t going to deliver.

This year, by contrast, the Slam is more real than it has been in six years. Ireland were a side transformed against France, delivering a performance that gave rise to hope once more that this Golden Generation can get more out of a Championship than a silver medal. By kick-off in Croke Park, the French may have done Ireland a favour – 211 years too late, but welcome nonetheless – and put paid to the Welsh in Paris. If so, the Championship will seem almost within touching distance.

This restoration of the Golden Generation is the second reason that the game on Saturday is so important. People had given up the Golden Generation for dead after the disaster of the 2007 World Cup; instead, Declan Kidney has come in and has somehow breathed life into careers long thought dead.

Brian O’Driscoll, like us all, will never be young again, but he has turned the clock back at least four years. The Munster ethos, so long dormant in the green jersey, is shining through. And the return of the Ulster players seems to have healed the Leinster/Munster rivalry that blighted the national side for so long. If Ireland do manage to win their first Championship in twenty-four years this year, the thanks will largely go to the new coach.

The third reason why the stakes are heightened is because England are that much better than they were two years ago. England have never recovered from winning the World Cup six years ago and have been in a process of either rebuilding or falling apart since. But a combination of immense player resources and bloodlines that allowed a damp little island to conquer one third of the world in their day don’t just disappear. England’s relentless march to the World Cup Final two years ago, before finally falling to a superior Springbok force, is one cameo instance of that. The English performance in Cardiff on St Valentine’s Day two weeks ago is another.

England had the advantage in that World Cup of having Jonny Wilkinson at stand-off half. Andy Goode or Toby Flood don’t really compare, while Danny Cipriani, who cut Ireland to ribbons last year at Twickenham, is out of favour. That makes them vulnerable. You need never look further than the misfortunate Italians to see how much a team struggles without a ten of international quality. Perhaps Martin Johnson will decide that even if he can’t stand him he’s stuck with him, and name Cipriani at ten. That would fairly put the cat among the pigeons.

Johnson. The current English coach is the only man in Lions history to captain two tours, and he is widely hailed as one of the greatest second rows in the history of the game, up there with Eales, Meads, McBride, and the rest. But he will always be infamous here for standing his ground on the red carpet before the Grand Slam decider at Lansdowne Road in 2003.

The significant thing about that is that Johnson successfully bluffed Ireland; he knew that if Ireland caved in, and bent the knee to the red rose before a ball was kicked, that the day would go to the old enemy.

Johnson was right. The only way to respond to a bluff is to up the ante. Ireland should have walked off and make a diplomatic protest about the insult to our head of state. Don’t think for a second that’s not what would have happened had Ireland tried the same stunt before a Windsor at Twickers. Instead, Ireland blinked. England won pulling up, and went on to claim the World Cup six months later.

Two years ago, England were humiliated in Croke Park, and humiliated before it by being made to say a lot of inane pieties about the historical associations of the stadium. That crack wouldn’t wash much with Johnson. Johnson, at a guess, would probably respond to Bloody Sunday the way Dyer did about Amritsar, and only express regret they couldn’t get in the armoured car and do a right job on it.

An Spailpín has written in the past of the horrors of leaving Championships behind. But if Ireland were to lose in Edinburgh and in Cardiff next month it would be worth it if that were the price of beating England on Saturday. The notion of losing to England, in Croke Park, is beyond intolerable. This game is that big a deal. Let it begin.

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