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August 2011

England to get Dublin revenge
24th August 2011

Last time England went to Dublin to play Ireland at the Aviva Stadium they were on course for the Grand Slam. They were smashed 24-8. The fact that they came away with the Six Nations title seemed scant consolation at the time, and has hardly changed status in the intervening 5 months.

In fact, it’s possible to argue that England have gone backwards since the spring. Then at least Martin Johnson’s young team had displayed enough nous to beat Wales in Cardiff and though each of the home victories over Italy, France and Scotland had been increasingly laboured, they were quite obviously in tune with their manager’s mantra that it is better to win ugly than not to win at all.

Now, although the win over Wales at Twickenham was a triumph of pragmatism over prettiness defeat in Cardiff a couple of weekends ago had few redeeming features. England failed to score a try at the Millenium Stadium and rarely looked like doing so. Johnson’s claim that, because the match was billed as a World Cup warm-up, England’s players were lacking their usual intensity chimed badly with the raison d’etre of his own playing days that winning was everything. It also and failed utterly to explain why, in captain Mike Tindall’s words, that Wales, for whom it was also the last match before a World Cp squad was to be announced, wanted it more.

Of course the cross that England will always have to bear is that they are the team that the rest of the world takes a particular delight in beating. The words of Clive Rowlands, Wales manager the last time the World Cup was played in New Zealand, sum up the attitude. Asked what crumbs of comfort Wales could draw from semi-final defeat – still the furthest they have ever got in the tournament – replied “Oh well, we’ll just have to go back to beating England”. The Australian T-shirt bearing the slogan “I support two teams – the Wallabies and anyone playing the All Blacks” would achieve worldwide sales if, no matter which team was substituted for Australia, England was the last word on the slogan.

It goes without saying that Ireland will be as desperate as ever to put another one over the old enemy this weekend. The 51,000 fans at the Aviva Stadium (Lansdowne Road in old money) imbibed anglophobia with their mother’s milk and need no help from anyone to believe that England are arrogant and condescending, as well as stodgy and dull.

The Ireland team will be just as motivated. Their World Cup build-up has, if anything, been worse than England’s. Four years ago, Ireland were accused of not playing enough warm-up matches before going to France and crashing out in the pool stages. This time, they’ve gone the other way – with four internationals and a match against Connacht in 21 days – with no obvious benefit. After opening their account with a turgid 10-6 defeat by Scotland at Murrayfield, Ireland were well beaten by France in Bordeaux and, although the scoreboard suggested a close encounter in last week’s return match in Dublin, Ireland know they didn’t even come a close second. At least they beat Connacht.

Three Test defeats and a hollow victory may have provided little comfort for Ireland coach Declan Kidney but, like Johnson and all the other coaches in the tournament, he has had to declare his World Cup hand in advance of this weekend’s match. At least, though, he does so in the knowledge that, after signing a two-year contract extension at the end of last month, he will be part of the furniture for some time to come. Probably. Kidney also knows that his predecessor Eddie O’Sullivan signed a similar deal before the last World Cup only to be sacked less than six moths later.

Kidney’s players have no such security. Although they know that their place on the plane to New Zealand has already been booked, they, like their English opponents this Saturday, can afford to take nothing for granted. To pick up an injury now, after surviving the most intense summer training of their lives, after getting through a succession of at-times brutal warm-up matches, would be the unkindest blow of all.

Under that sort of pressure, both sets of players could be excused for retreating into their shells. That approach might guarantee that they get on the plane in one piece but it might also guarantee an early flight home. If Ireland or England are to do well at the World Cup they’ve got to produce something convincing this weekend.