Saturday’s game against England at Twickenham will be Ireland’s 14th test game in eight months and will have a defining influence on how that period is judged.
With three more tests to come on successive Saturdays against New Zealand in June and a warm-up game against the Barbarians prior to departing for the southern hemisphere, a win in London would offer a massive boost before the players disperse to the provinces for that vital period of the season when silverware is decided.
It has been a difficult Six Nations for Ireland in many ways with that disappointing opening day defeat to Wales delivering a massive blow, with any notions of a Grand Slam or Triple Crown knocked on its head before the campaign ever got up and running. The fact that the players were unable to vent their frustrations for a further three weeks when the French game was called off at the last minute presented another hurdle they could have done without.
Since then, the team and the management have regrouped and displayed admirable character in the wake of a series of blows, not least the loss of forwards coach Gert Smal to illness followed by injuries to Paul O’Connell, Conor Murray and Sean O’Brien. With Brian O’Driscoll and David Wallace already ruled out of the entire championship, Declan Kidney has had plenty to overcome.
In those circumstances, Ireland have done well but the pain of thatagonising draw at the Stade de France and the sense it was an opportunity spurned was only enhanced by the manner in which England, in similar circumstances, managed to close the deal.
The England side that fetched up in Paris last Sunday was not as experienced as their Irish counterparts but remained competitive throughout the 80 minutes before delivering the killer blow with that spectacular try from Tom Croft. For the second time in eight days, France had the winning of the game in their own hands but lacked the composure, technique and understanding when it came to delivering a drop goal at the death. In this respect, both Lionel Beauxis and Francois Trinh-Duc failed miserably.
After recording wins against the two weakest sides in the tournament in Italy and Scotland, Ireland need avictory against an ever-improvingEnglish side to add a bit more polish to their results and claim a potential second-place finish. Watching Scotland on Saturday was actually quite sad given the sustained excellence and quality players they always produced in the amateur era.
Since the advent of professionalism in 1995, the game in Scotland has regressed at a rate of knots. When I look back at the outstanding Scottish players and great leaders, it beggars belief that their graph has fallen so dramatically. When you looked at how, out of necessity, Andy Robinson was forced to play a scrum half, Greig Laidlaw, at out-half, it makes you wonder what his uncle Roy, whosingle-handedly punished several Irish sides with his pace off the base of the scrum, thinks about where Scottish rugby is going. You will win nothing at international level, or in the Heineken Cup for that matter, without a pair of half-backs with a clear understanding of how to pull the strings and manage a game. Scottish rugby always had them.
On different Lions tours, I had the pleasure of playing with two sets of Scottish half backs in Roy Laidlaw and John Rutherford, followed by their successors Gary Armstrong and Craig Chalmers. Back-row forwards were equally plentiful, with Jim Calder, John Beattie and Ian Paxton all in New Zealand with the Lions in 1983, followed by another dynamic breakaway unit in John Jeffrey, Derek White and Finley Calder in Australia in 1989. Calder captained the 1989 tour and was succeeded as captain by Gavin Hastings when the Lions returned to New Zealand in 1993.
The SRU failed miserably to come to terms with the demands of theprofessional game and the players have suffered as a consequence. You just cannot build a successful international side off a base of two clubs, and while both Edinburgh and Glasgow have performed creditably this season, they have no experience whatsoever when it comes to delivering trophies. The IRFU saw the light after the defeat to Argentina in the 1999 World Cup,invested heavily in the international side and Irish rugby has been to the forefront ever since.
All teams, even at international level, go through cycles when they are blessed with the arrival of a number of top quality players at the same time. Ireland have had those players coming through at regular intervals for well over a decade now. Wales look as if they have unearthed a number of young gems with the capacity tochallenge at the top of the pile for some time now which is ironic, given that regional rugby in Wales is facing a bit of a crisis at present.
Falling attendances, a lack of success and the improved fortunes of Cardiff City and Swansea football clubs are all having an effect on the finances of the clubs and the inference from the Cardiff Blues’ financial backer, Peter Thomas, that the clubs will no longer be able to pay their players when on international duty, has already had consequences with James Hook, Mike Phillips, Lee Byrne, Luke Charteris, Gethin Jenkins and Hugh Bennett all gone or preparing to go to France. A Welsh Grand Slam on Saturday may only paper over cracks that may come back to haunt them in time to come.
After the calamitous fallout from the World Cup, the manner in which caretaker manager Stuart Lancaster has turned around the fortunes of English rugby offers a further pointer as to how things can change very quickly in this game. His results are even more noteworthy when you consider that three of England’s games have been won away from home in this championship for the first time since the advent of the Six Nations format in 2000. Even the Woodward regime failed to achieve that.
Sunday’s magnificent win in Paris — we know better than anyone just how difficult it is to win there — sets them up nicely for their final outing against the Irish. Interesting how a six-day turnaround doesn’t appear quite as bad after a momentous win like that. Given their heroic effort against the Welsh in the only game in Twickenham so far for this fledgling outfit, you can be sure that the English rugby public will get rightbehind their team. Ireland will not only be playing a rejuvenated English side on Saturday but also a packed Twickenham thirsting for the return of the good days. That will make things even more difficult.
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