England’s ‘living legend’ to provide Sexton with sternest test yet
Every time this fixture comes around and we all head off to London, it is with great fondness (and the odd goosebump) that I recall a pre-match meeting in the Irish team hotel in South Kensington. The year was 1978; venue, the Gloucester Hotel; place, the team room; time, the night before the Twickenham Five Nations Anglo-Irish match-up.
Scrum-half John Moloney was Ireland captain. Johnny was articulate and measured in everything he did and said. He was never one to lose it or allow the atmosphere to overheat, particularly with 18 hours still to go before kick-off.
As the meeting wound down and almost everybody had had their say, he asked if anyone in the room had anything further to add. A soft northern lilt interjected. "Aye John, I do have just one small thing to add. These arrogant stuffy-nosed gits see us as mad lunatics down from the hills set to beat the bejaysus out of them and kick everything in sight above the grass."
You could have heard the proverbial pin drop in the long and loaded silence that followed, before Dungannon flanker Stewart McKinney (he of the recent best seller 'Voices From The Back Of The Bus') proffered with greatly increasing venom: "Let's not disappoint them."
The game has, of course, moved on significantly since that time. It is in so many ways unrecognisable from what it once was and yet the passion in McKinney's message is every bit as relevant today as it was three decades ago.
All the pre-match analysis, defensive organisation, gameplans and even tactical substitutions will have been worked out to the nth degree, but on days like this, in passionate games like this, what really matters is that hidden extra, that facility to dig deep and draw from areas you didn't even know existed in order to be in front when the final whistle goes.
To take the example of our most recent match, the uninhibited aggression to which McKinney refers is the blue version from Paris -- not the green. It is not, however, about kicking out recklessly a la Jerry Flannery on Alexis Palisson, but is about pressurising the opposition in all the right areas. With this in mind, the French blueprint against us should be copied by Ireland today against the English.
As ever, there will be so many key head-to-heads and unit-to-units. There is also the Mike Ford factor, so whatever can be known, will be known by Martin Johnson and the rest of his backroom staff.
How could it be otherwise, given the time spent by Ford at the cutting edge of the Irish camp in Eddie O'Sullivan's period in charge?
One of the most obvious areas which had to be addressed post-Paris was the need to get forwards running at pace from depth off slow ruck ball. Setting up either Brian O'Driscoll or Gordon D'Arcy, either on a straight burst or else on a switch into forward traffic (in search of forward momentum), is self-defeating when the objective is to have one, preferably both, on the end of quicker-won ruck ball.
Greater discipline, accuracy and patience are other ingredients that require collective reinvention today.
But if ever a game hung around two main players in two pivotal positions, it is the battle of the out-halves -- the battle of the Jonnies -- Jonny the elder in white versus Jonny the garsun in green.
Rest assured, each will have been central to the other team's plan of action once the line-ups were announced in midweek. Such has been the stature achieved by Jonny Wilkinson that to dare question aspects of his increasingly fallible game are deemed to be almost sacrilegious.
Not for a minute are we doubting his potential to be the English matchwinner yet again this afternoon. His point-scoring facility is something that will never go away. It is, however, detached from his all-round game. Wilkinson operates in a vacuum when kicking goals. In other areas, he can be got at.
He is no longer the consistent game-linking, gainline-breaking threat that he was from 2001 to 2003. Too many injuries have necessitated a re-assessment by player and management alike. Now what you see is what you get. Pragmatic, if limited, direction, albeit direction fuelled by vast experience. Kicking out of hand has never been his forte so David Wallace and Tomas O'Leary could reap rich dividends if they apply pressure in that area today. All that said, Wilkinson is still the leading points scorer in world rugby and one still armed with probably the best out-half defensive mechanism around.
By contrast, it would appear a daunting task for Sexton. Taking on a living rugby legend, a English sporting icon, on his own patch will be a massive task. But, as Ronan O'Gara has so often said, it is for days and challenges like this that professional rugby players live. He may be tender in years, but already Sexton has shown for Leinster and for Ireland that when the heat is turned up, he is made of all the right stuff.
Home comforts against Fiji (at the RDS) and South Africa (in Croke Park) have served the new playmaking challenger well. Both winning tests were passed with flying colours, but this is a different proposition entirely.
England may not be remotely close to the superpower they once were when the coach was the captain and the out-half the king, but they have early winning momentum in the championship. With their opposition driven by a rookie out-half and Ireland chasing a sixth win in seven attempts (never before achieved against the old enemey), then you've a fair guess what lies ahead for the visitors.
England have not been too easy on the eye of late, but then we've hardly been setting the rugby world alight either. The prospect of 'winning ugly' looms large. I have little doubt that a victory of any kind will do for Johnson and Declan Kidney. Pyrotechnics are irrelevant to both. A home win and England, for all the criticism shipped, are one Calcutta Cup success at Murrayfield away from another Triple Crown.
Likewise for Ireland, a win today and it's back-to-back home matches for a fifth Triple Crown in seven years.
Bearing in mind it took 110 years to put together the five Crowns amassed prior to 2004, it should at least put the recent rugby success in some sort of reasonable perspective.
However, you can be sure that Triple Crowns or potential successes down the road will be the last thing on the minds of the two teams running out at Twickenham today.
This is Ireland against England, a match and an end in itself.
England will be up for it, that we know, but when the time to get down and dirty comes, expect O'Driscoll, O'Connell and the rest to respond in kind.
To borrow from McKinney's famous Kensington call, they will not disappoint.