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Twickenham exam comes at best time

A couple of weeks is a long time in rugby, but considering the loss in Paris and some injuries to some of his squad members in the interim, Declan Kidney would have been mightily relieved at the extra week's respite for his team to regroup and refocus for tomorrow's game in Twickenham.

No one is pressing any panic buttons yet, but after only losing one match in the past year Ireland do find themselves in a somewhat unfamiliar position when you consider the long run of winning performances.

Of course, there are hundreds of caps and a wealth of experience to rely on, and, even though the carrot of beating England will always give any Irishman an extra adrenaline boost, this week will be the biggest mental challenge for Ireland in some time.

Despite Ireland's form and status as Grand Slam champions they were underdogs to some extent against South Africa last November and against France two weeks ago. So, in one sense, some of the pressure was off them.

This game presents a more unique challenge. When it all boils down to it we are definitely the better side on paper, but when you consider the backdrop of England having won their last two games and Ireland defeated for the first time in a year then it does put a slightly different slant on things. It makes this game very important for a number of reasons.

For Ireland, it is essential for the team's development and psyche that the French game is seen to be only a blip on the screen. A loss in Twickenham will not be the end of the world but some very tough questions will no doubt arise if we come out the wrong end, the extent of which will be based on how Ireland perform on the day.

For me, Ireland are at a bit of a crossroads. One of the big questions is can we continue to develop our attacking game and be successful against an equally physical, yet less talented side than the French?

Taking into account the context of the question and all that has gone before in Paris, I believe we could not be playing England at a better time. It is still a long time to the World Cup, but tomorrow's match will give us all a clear indication of how far we have come in developing our play.

Our defence and most other aspects of our game are up there with the best in the world. If Ireland are to be competitive at the very highest level then our ability to play in a way that complements the best players on our team must be the basis on how this team is judged.

Leinster, meanwhile, came through a potentially tricky encounter against the Scarlets last weekend. Llanelli defied their lowly place in the Magners League table by playing some great rugby and were unlucky in the end not to push the Blues a lot closer.

Having said that, underneath their confident exterior was a team that once again had no answers to Leinster's overall dominance.

There were some notable performances, especially from Stephen Keogh who certainly grasped his opportunity in the aftermath of the unfortunate injury to Seán O'Brien.

Jonny Sexton also justified his selection for the England game with another fine all-round display. His link play and physicality in both attack and defence will surely serve Ireland well in tomorrow's game -- he could well be the difference on the day.

Considering the backdrop to this match it does make it a tough game to call, but I do have a good feeling that Ireland will bounce back from their last disappointment with a hard-fought win.

If we look short term, the manner in which we strive for victory will not matter to some observers.

However, for Ireland to continue along the road of progress then they must seize every opportunity afforded to them, akin to the way they played in the latter stages of the game in Paris.

Ultimately though, we cannot wait until we are 20 points down before attempting to play in a manner that will always bring the best out of this team.


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