Friday, February 27, 2009

A bigger test for Irish rugby

Two years ago Jumpthefence sat in an Irish bar in Florence (the Fiddlers Elbow if you must know) with a large mish-mash of holidaying Irish and English rugby supporters for the famous Ireland-England Croker game. A group of Irish asked for hush for the national anthems, more out of curiosity than patriotism. The match itself seemed an after-thought. There was a gimmicky feeling about the whole experience, as we patted ourselves on the back for being so mature, all the while painfully explaining to the English just why it was our maturity was impressive.

Looking back now, two feelings remain. We made a bit of an embarrassing show about something that wasn't that big a deal really, or at least not for the reasons we touted. Mainly, that England were crap - who remembers Morgan,Strettle, Freshwater, Chuter, Deacon, Lund? Andy Farrell played for God's sake, and guys like Lewsey, Wilkinson, Grewcock, were shadows of the World Cup winners. Now we're not taking away from an undeniably passionate and emotional experience for many, and what was a blockbusting Irish performance. But some perspective is needed. We won nothing that season. The display against France a few weeks ago was far superior, because it came under real pressure, and it came against a worthy opponent.

This weekend's game is probably more important than two seasons ago, taken dispassionately. Ireland are taking steps towards a championship win, a Grand Slam possibility, and that's where we'll find out a lot about this group. We won't go into the ins and outs of the teams or what type of game it'll be, only to say that Ireland are the better side, no doubt about that. Even Stephen Jones made an admission of error about Ronan O'Gara this week as the fly-half plays his 90th test game. Ireland are more powerful, more creative and should be more confident.

But there was signs of a resurgence in England in Wales a fortnight ago. Toby Flood offers more than Andy Goode at ten. Martin Johnson really won't fancy coming to Ireland and rolling over, it just wouldn't be the style of a team of his, so they'll be fired up and dangerous. England to put it up to Ireland I'd reckon, but Ireland's class and ability to get scores to pull them through in the end. It's unlikely to be a thirty-point game though.

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