England travel to Ireland on Saturday pursuing a Grand Slam and excitement is rife. Who would have thought that, a year on from scraping home against Italy and being content with a narrow defeat to France in Paris, we would be here? But even the most optimistic England fans are far from uncorking the champagne. England were nervous and inaccurate against Scotland last week and flawed against France in the previous game.
But they still won. England will rightly be favourites and expectations are high but there are many uncertainties which will keep the rugby fraternity babbling away all week. Many of us will go through high moments and low moments when considering the prospects for the game, an internal dialogue raging throughout.
The inner-optimist would point out that the last time England went into a Grand Slam game in Dublin was in 2003 when they produced one of their all-time finest performances to win 42-7. We’ve done it before and by Johnno we’ll do it again. The pessimist in us would retort that between 1990 and 2003, England went into the last game of the Championship searching for a Grand Slam on no fewer than 8 occasions but only came away with the spoils on 4 of them. Indeed they lost 3 times in a row to Celtic nations between 1999 and 2001, each of which could be characterised as not far short of a choke.
Unperturbed, the optimist points out that there is only one survivor from the 2001 game and he is on the bench. This is a young and optimistic team playing an exuberant brand of rugby and they will rise to the occasion. Nonsense, replies the pessimist. Both Will Carling’s team and Martin Johnson’s lost in their first crack at a Grand Slam, in 1990 and 1999 respectively. It seems England teams need to get close to a Grand Slam and experience failure before they can summon up the ability to actually win one.
What do 1991, 1995 and 2003 have in common? asks the optimist. They are all World Cup years in which England have won Grand Slams. We do well in World Cup years. We don’t bottle it. 1999, Scott Gibbs and all that, replies the pessimist. Bugger, says the optimist.
But he bounces back. He is an optimist after all. England have the tournament’s strongest pack with a reliable set piece, some dynamic ball carriers and potentially Tom Croft to return. Ireland have been overpowered by the French and Italians and matched by the Welsh and Scottish. They won’t be able to live with England’s power. The spiky little pessimist draws attention to the breakdown. It has been England’s weakest point in the past couple of games. They have been short on numbers, have conceded turnovers and have put the half backs under pressure. Ireland have one of the best back rows around and in David Wallace an expert nuisance at the breakdown. And when England are disrupted, they don’t know where to go.
The optimist turns to the backs. England have been playing with flair and tempo. They have arguably the most impressive half back pairing in the tournament with excellent back up on the bench and a back three who have cut swathes through many an opponent. And, replies the pessimist, centres with hands like feet and feet like concrete. Oppositions have worked them out. Pressurise the half backs and they have nothing to turn to outside them. The back three are nullified by the fact that defences know there is no threat coming from the centres.
The optimist changes tack. What about Ireland? he asks. Their front row is weak, their penalty count is huge, their top 2 scrum halves are injured, they can’t decide on their 10, Gordon D’Arcy, Keith Earls and Luke Fitzgerald have been unimpressive leaving a back row, Brian O’Driscoll and Tommy Bowe to win it for them. They have not performed well all tournament. Half the team are past it, the others are not yet good enough. The pessimist concedes that his adversary has a point. But Ireland still look like a team with a performance in them. It has not clicked yet but they are capable of beating anyone in the tournament on their day. Nothing will motivate them more than the sight of an England team going for a Grand Slam and the chance to stop them.
It is that kind of game. For every argument there is a counter-argument. England are favourites but they are entering unchartered territory. They have a coach who will keep their feet on the ground but he can do nothing about what goes on between the ears once they’re on the pitch. They have not won in Dublin since 2003 but they had not won in Cardiff either. In a way it is a shame that Ireland are out of the title race but that will not diminish the occasion or their motivation one iota.
At the end of it all finger nails will be bitten to the quick and we all will have aged considerably. We will know more about both teams in terms of the big picture but who will give a stuff about that on Saturday. It is all about one game and one game only, one team hunting glory and another desperate to stop them. It will be brutal, it will be intense, it will be nerve-jangling, it will be unbearable. And for England, it could be glorious.
By Stuart Peel