The ifs and buts of a Grand Slam finale

James Haskell

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

Photo: Patrick Khachfe/Onside Images

17 thoughts on “The ifs and buts of a Grand Slam finale

  1. This is such a hard one to call. If England play to their potential, they will win, but it is hard to see past an inexperienced team, who have never been in this position before, not choking in a hostile Lansdowne Road arena. Yes, Ireland haven’t hit their straps and many of their players are nearing the end of their careers but there is certainly one last big performance in them and they would love nothing more than to crush English Grand Slam dreams.

  2. All we need to do to win the game is get people running off flood. If we are going to play flood people have to run a tight ball off both his shoulders and have a long ball if neccesary. That is how we beat ireland. Thats how we beat Italy and Australia and it will work. If you give a Fly-Half 3 options every time then i could win us the grand slam at ten.

  3. We almost lost against Scotland, due to a lack of experience.

    ireland were far better than wales and will be much bigger test.

    Ireland will sneak this one im sorry to say.

  4. This is such a tough one to call. I don’t think England are actually any better than Ireland, France or Wales if each of those teams is on top form – anyone arguing otherwise is talking patriotic nonsense.

    However, England are the only team of the 4 to have played well throughout the tournament. France have been hideously inconsistent, Ireland’s discipline, game structure and presence at the contact area have let them down, and Wales have never got out of second gear (despite winning 3 games). England, in contrast, have been very clinical in attack, sound defensively and accurate in their kicking game… They could have lost against Wales, France and Scotland – but they closed the games well, which is a very positive sign for them come Saturday. If England are ahead by 5 or more with 20 minutes to go, you wouldn’t bet against them.

    Ireland will be stung from their loss to Wales, and they surely have one big game in them… I’d expect Ireland to score 2 tries at home, which might give England just a little bit too much to do…

  5. JohnE I don’t think it’s patriotic nonsense to say that Eng are better than Ireland. If you break the teams down the only areas Ire have the upper hand are in the centres and maybe the back row. The rest of the team is either equal or in Eng fav. Ire also don’t seem to know what type of game they want to play at the mo and who with, as far as 9-10 go. Having said that it will be a very tight game and whilst Eng are stronger Ire may well squeeze out a win.

  6. what a terrific piece of literature to get everyone’s blood pumping for what could be a momentous day for English rugby. A tip of the cap to you sir!

  7. i think England will win, it will be close, but England are in better form than Ireland currently. out of the 12 players shortlisted for player of the tournament 4 of them are English. Floods kicking has been very good, as has wilkos. playing in Dublin is always a hard fixture, but so is playing in Cardiff. England are looking strong, and if were to put my money on one side it would definitely be England.

  8. Chris, I’ve just seen the short list some notable ommisions! Firstly how on earth is Parisse not in there? Secondly I know they are winless but surely the Scots should get one nomination? Richie Gray??

  9. I agree, both Parisse and Gray deserve to be on the list, but definitely not over Palmer or Haskell who have both had a very good Six nations, not really sure how the Italian nine got on it, i felt he was distinctly average in his matches.

  10. Unfortunately this 6N has been notable for its awful performances, rather than brilliant ones. England vs Italy – yeah, we were decent, but it was more about how off-key Italy were that day. Italy-France – worst French performance I can recall. Ireland-France – awful Irish performance, etc. So the comments above about how any of the Celtic nations could beat England if they hit their “top form” are even more inane than normal.

    I agree with Will about how England need to attack off Flood, and they also have to be more thoughtful about the forward phases to get the penetration and unleash the back line more selectively. Instead of pushing guys like Haskell out wide, go for high-tempo explosive impacts up front first to gain territory and get the defensive lines disorganized.

    With Tindall out I’m guessing the only changes from last week will be Banahan in at 13 and Croft at 6. Wood will probably be on the bench, but who will take Banahan’s spot?

    Not expecting to see many tries, but England to win my a pen or two. Ireland are a team in decline both on and off the pitch, and the home advantage also adds pressure that they won’t be able to stand.

  11. The player of the tournament nominees are all those who have won a man of the match award so far in the tournament. Which is a completely ridiculous idea probably thought up by marketing people who have absolutely no idea about the game. It means you can play one good game, get injured and miss the rest of the tournament and get nominated or, in the case of Ronan O’Gara, start 3 of the 5 ghames on the bench and get nominated. Farcical.

    Looks as though Croft is going to stay on the bench and Strettle come in as backs cover. Not convinced by the latter of those.

    Uncle Mat, take your point about the poor performances but all the better teams have produced one strong performance and I think Ireland are a good enough team to produce one. It is their last chance to save their tournament from being a complete disaster and England hold no fears for them.

  12. Stuart – If that’s the case let’s hope that Hape does not get injured otherwise we will not have a single centre on the field! Banahan at 12?!

    That’s why I think it’s more likely for Flutey to be on the bench. Depends how much work they’ve done in training I guess with both players, I’d like to keep some sort of continuity.

  13. Stuart is right on the team selection I believe – Banners in for Tins, Easter skipper and Strettle on the bench…we’ll get it published at 11 or 12 when it’s officially announced.

  14. Interesting to see Strettle’s in the mix, especially if he’s covering centre as well as wing. That’s unless they would bring Wilko on if there was an injury in the centres, either replacing Hape at 12, or with Hape sliding out to 13 if Bananaman got injured?

    Stuart, I know you don’t rate Strettle and I agree he has some defensive frailties, but I think he’s a very good player who will provide the opposition defence with some problems.

    Great to have Croft on the bench – shows we’re developing real strength in depth in the back row. And all credit to Wood – he’s nailed the opportunity he was shown and made it impossible to drop him.

  15. Justin – You’re right. If Hape were to get injured then it’d be a Wilko – Flood combination, brainfreeze whilst at work!

    Will – Difficult to find news but I think he’s fit. Read in a newspaper article the other day (not sure, either Standard or Guardian) that Johnson had hinted at Flutey coming in, no direct quote though. Press Association reported that Strettle likely to make the bench ahead of Flutey and Armitage, with both now available.

  16. Justin, I’ve always been quite a fan of Strettle actually, think he’s one of our best broken field runners. Little bit of a turnstyle in defence and a little fragile but not too many issues with him coming in, although there are others with just as good a claim. Think we all know who we all would prefer though…but unsurprisingly I think he’s injured.

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