A gain line worth crossing
It was ten years ago but it seems like an age. The England side which came to Lansdowne Road remains by some distance the best team to play in the Six Nations. A few months later they would become world champions.
Both teams were ostensibly playing for the Grand Slam but it was obvious from an early stage that this was no contest at all. England walked all over us en route to a 42-6 victory. We could only dream of an Irish team ever playing with such power and control.
It was also the day when we started a pathetic whinge about Martin Johnson's dastardly treatment of Mary McAleese which went on for a ludicrous amount of time. We did it, I think, to distract ourselves from the dreadful vision of the rugby future which presented itself that day, an English boot stamping on an Irish face forever and ever.
Yet a full decade later England are still looking for their next away win against Ireland in the Six Nations. We have won seven of the nine meetings since then (I'm discounting the 2011 World Cup warm-up game because it didn't feel like a real match at all), something which would have seemed utterly unbelievable when England were running in their fifth try en route to their 14th win out of 17 against Ireland.
Ten years ago there was simply no comparison between Irish and English rugby. In the previous decade England had won six Triple Crowns, five Six Nations Championships and three Grand Slams. We hadn't won anything and in that painful period suffered the kind of scourgings from the old enemy which had they occurred in boxing would have led to calls for the sport to be banned. That 42-6 trouncing wasn't all that unexpected; hadn't we lost 45-11 the previous year, 50-18 two years before that and 46-6 in Lansdowne back in 1997? Is it any wonder we sought to console ourselves by dwelling on their failures of pre-match protocol?
Yet ever since the 2004 Twickenham victory of blessed memory we haven't just been able to beat England, they've become our favourite opponents, the team we can beat when everything else is going wrong. In 2005, we weren't good enough for France or Wales but we could still beat England. And two years ago a pretty awful Six Nations season for us was redeemed by a thumping victory over England which considerably tarnished their status as Six Nations champions.
England are the team to whom Irish fans sing, 'Can we play you every week?' Because in the same period that we've beaten them seven times, we've only had one victory over France. And our record against Wales shows us ahead by the odd game in 11. England, on the other hand, do pretty well against everyone except Ireland. They've amassed half a dozen victories over France in that time, trail Wales by a single game, 5-6 and have even managed to beat Australia on four occasions. Ireland is their great stumbling block.
The 2003 game comes to mind so readily because today's showdown is probably the most important match between the two countries since then. There's just so much riding on it. France's defeat by Italy means that today's victors are likely to win the Six Nations. A Triple Crown is pretty much guaranteed for the winners and with the French having to visit both Twickenham and the Aviva, a Grand Slam will be on the cards too.
And, crucially, today's victors will probably end up as the dominant force on the Lions tour to Australia, at least in terms of selection. Given the precipitous decline in form of so many Welsh players, today also offers a fantastic opportunity for players to pencil in their name on the provisional starting XV for the First Test on June 22 (although the Welsh and English slant of the management set-up could be a stumbling block for Irish players).
An Irish win today would arguably be the most significant since the 2004 victory over the reigning world champions. Because, satisfying as all the intervening triumphs were, most of them came over fairly average England teams. Even the 2011 championship-winning team destroyed 24-8 in Dublin didn't seem quite kosher, an impression later confirmed by their disastrous World Cup campaign and the departure of Martin Johnson.
This time round there's no disputing that England have put together a very good team, maybe even their best since the halcyon Grand Slam and World Cup winning years. Their 38-21 victory over the All Blacks in December was simply breathtaking, last year's 30-9 victory over Ireland in Twickenham bore a worrying resemblance to routs of olden days and there's little doubt that the excellent Stuart Lancaster has them on the right road. You get the feeling that the chariot might be swinging big time in the near future. They'll be coming to Dublin with a great deal of confidence. They always do of course, but this time it's not entirely misplaced.
Yet Ireland are also on a high confidence-wise. The suspicion that the terrific 46-24 win over Argentina owed more than a little to the deficiencies of the opposition was comprehensively allayed by that superb victory in Cardiff. In the first half Ireland played as well as they've ever played under Declan Kidney and the combination of youthful exuberance and renascent veterans has restored the feelgood factor to Irish rugby. It's all feeling a bit like 2009 when expectations were moderate going into the season only to be sent rocketing by the victory against France which generated an unstoppable momentum.
Even when there's not much at stake, our meeting with England always seems like the emotional high point of the season. It's that Old Enemy feeling which we're always being urged to get over as a sign of 'maturity'. But to imagine that there can ever be a day when an Irish victory over England doesn't feel special to most of us is to gravely misunderstand human nature. Leave us our simple pleasures folks and wag your finger somewhere else.
What we have today is an Ireland-England match where almost everything that could possibly be at stake is at stake. There's just so much to relish. For England, there's the chance to prove that the hype about the current team is genuine by doing something they haven't done since the last time they really were great.
For Ireland, there's a chance to kick on and dispel the air of underachievement that's hung around the team since 2009. The Grand Slam season which was supposed to be the door to a glorious new future has looked like something of a dead end in recent seasons. Now's the time to change that.
Then there are the individual battles. Can Simon Zebo and Craig Gilroy be just as uninhibited and exciting in a game of this magnitude? How will England's tyro centre pairing of Brad Barritt and Billy Twelvetrees fare against the old masters O'Driscoll and D'Arcy? How long will it be before we see Manu Tuilagi? Fresh from outplaying Mike Phillips, can Conor Murray make a case for himself as the Lions' Test scrumhalf by doing the same against Ben Youngs?
The pack battles are even more fascinating. Last year after Mike Ross went off injured England embarrassed the Irish front row. Can they do the same thing with Ross restored and Cian Healy in top form? Who'll win the bruising battle between Lions front-runners Tom Youngs and Rory Best? Is England's great white hope in the second row, 21-year-old Joe Launchbury, all he's cracked up to be? Or will Donnacha Ryan prove that he really can fill the shoes of Paul O'Connell? Was Chris Robshaw's performance against Richie McCaw and the All Blacks proof that he's the best back row forward in the home countries? Or are the English getting a bit over-excited as usual and forgetting the unstoppable Seán O'Brien?
And most important of all. Do England really, really deep down have the stomach for it in Dublin? We'll know by this evening.
Let's dance, Chariot Boys.