Wednesday 21 February 2018

Old enemies have eyes on World Cup

Tommy Bowe scores a try in 2011 against England
Tommy Bowe scores a try in 2011 against England
David Kelly

David Kelly

THERE may be too much on the line in five days' time to worry about what might happen six months away but, in a World Cup year, England and Ireland will still be keen to fire a significant salvo.

England have won the last four on the trot against Ireland, reversing a recent trend when they had only managed to win one from eight in seven years between 2004 and 2011.

Ireland stand on the verge of winning ten in a row against all-comers, emulating a 12-year-old record that, perhaps portentously, ultimately fell in 2003 when England trounced the home team 42-6 in Dublin.

Twelve years on, the sides meet with, effectively, a Grand Slam on the table, even if this marks merely the halfway staging post of the 2015 championship, while it also, as in 2003, plays out in the context of a looming World Cup.

Joe Schmidt may be the minister of minutiae but even he may not have dared to emulate his English counterpart who, even before his appointment in 2012, had already begun to plot a pathway towards the World Cup his country hosts in just six months' time.

We have never seen the inside of Schmidt's office but, we can handily wager, it is unlikely to include the elaborate colour-coded chart within Stuart Lancaster's domain which graphs, almost daily, the countdown to the greatest rugby show on earth.

Schmidt (pictured, right) is, publicly at least, too energised by the short-term to become distracted by the long-term.

And yet for all his emphasis on the process, it was interesting to gain the briefest of insights into a notable aside he delivered to his squad during his brief Galway gathering last week. In essence, Schmidt alluded to Ireland's impending opportunity to extend their winning run; much as England conspired to construct momentum in the build-up to the 2003 World Cup by devising an unbeatable aura, the Kiwi is clearly challenging Ireland to do the same.

Twenty years ago it was all so different. When England came to Ireland for the last Six Nations of the amateur era, the result - England won 20-8 - was secondary.

The almighty lash in Dublin city enjoyed by both sets of players - even though this was a round one fixture - remained the focal point of the weekend.

Ireland lost again here to England in 1999, before the embarrassing defeat to Argentina in Lens later that year in the World Cup; England followed their 1995 semi-final exit with a comprehensive quarter-final defeat to South Africa in '99.

Under Clive Woodward, though, they were already beginning to plan for the 2003 edition; they had survived several Grand Slam final hurdle flops before pitching up in Dublin for a seminal decider.

The night before the game, the England squad were shown a montage of clips of them in action accompanied by a stirring soundtrack, Eminem's 'Lose Yourself'.

"I really rammed home that unless we won the game and won it well, we had no chance in the World Cup," recalled coach Clive Woodward.

Martin Johnson's men proved immoveable, both in the pre-match parade and during the 42-6 rout itself.

"We were after having a good run," noted Ronan O'Gara, "but we were nowhere near them."

The World Cup would ultimately frank that perception.

England's title success underpinned a run that embraced two wins in the southern hemisphere en route to their final success against Australia that autumn; Ireland had long since succumbed meekly to France in their traditional quarter-final exit.

The two countries responded to that World Cup in different ways; for England, the wheels of the chariot were spectacularly derailed within months; Ireland, on the other hand, began building purposefully during the four-year cycle.

Eddie O'Sullivan was building a side brimful of hardened experience and nous to match that of Woodward's 2003 outfit; three Triple Crowns and four successive victories against England suggested a decisive lurch in momentum between the two countries.

As much as 2003 had been recalled for the emotional intensity of England's performance, its 2007 equivalent arguably bubbled with even more emotive reference points except, this time, Ireland drew more water from the well.

That year's epic Croke Park success marked the high watermark of Ireland's domination of the old enemy in the 2000s and seemed to serve as a timely counterpoint to the 2003 drubbing, even if Vincent Clerc had already denied Ireland access to a Grand Slam.

Ireland had a settled side, in contrast to England, who had jettisoned a coach and whose side was in a constant state of flux. Like Lancaster now, they had a World Cup itinerary but it lasted only until the now traditional quarter-final exit.

Shane Horgan questioned why this was so. "Our intention was to win it, " says O'Gara. "That's what we told each other."

But by the time France 2007 rolled around, Ireland's policy of cocooning its first-team squad in an intensive strength and conditioning regime would spectacularly backfire.

England, spanked 36-0 by South Africa in the pool stages would, inconceivably, end up finishing as runners-up in the tournament.

Where once the Six Nations seemed to offer a form guide to World Cup chances, it was now being exposed as a rather arbitrary assistance to gauging the true health of its leading contenders.

As in 2003, England arrived here in 2011 under Johnson with a Grand Slam agenda, determined to make a significant statement in World Cup year, except this time they left a chastened, coursed rabble.

"We didn't go to Dublin for scars or lessons," said Nick Easter.

Haunted by self-doubt, England then changed their style before the World Cup which, despite much more coherent preparation and a flawless pool stage, ultimately undid them, combined with toxic indiscipline off the field.

Ireland, as now seemed predictable, trudged homewards at the quarter-final stage despite a coruscating pool mugging of Australia.

And so, while both countries will seek to make statements of firm intent this Sunday, there is a danger in assuming they will remain definitive by the time the World Cup rolls around.

The tea leaves are too hard to accurately read. In 2015, England and Ireland will be judged on autumn days. But for now, Sunday is the only judgement day that matters.

Irish Independent

Promoted Links

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Promoted Links

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport