Ireland prepared for the last World Cup by sitting in the freezing cold in the Polish countryside, eating (8,000 calories per day!) and playing contentious friendlies – witness the anthem debate before the Italian game in Ravenhill and the Battle of Bayonne.
They arrived at the World Cup and looked like a team that still needed to defrost from the cryotherapy chambers, ignominiously exiting in the group stages and kick starting the recession. A satisfactory explanation for just what happened or didn’t happen has never been put forward but the answer settled for was that the team Didn’t Have Enough Rugby.
Declan Kidney chose to avoid this pitfall by scheduling four quality test matches for the month of August, to supplement the player management program run throughout the 2011 season. So far, they have not gone well for Ireland and Kidney has selected two full backs in his squad that haven’t played since January. He also chose to leave at home one of the two full backs who he selected during the Six Nations. There’s been a lot of comment on how Paddy Wallace is going on this tour at the expense of Luke Fitzgerald. I believe Fitzgerald has been left out for Geordan Murphy, that Fitzgerald is going to have a great season and that Murphy won’t play a starting role in any of Ireland’s significant games this RWC. So how does this matter at the weekend?
Jerry Flannery has got the nod to start this game, which is great to see. Flannery’s darts are top drawer and Ireland is still a team that needs its lineout to function well in order to play near capacity. Sean O’Brien’s injury gives Stephen Ferris a chance to start again while David Wallace also returns. Ferris looked fit and strong against France but questions remain about whether he can match O’Brien’s level of involvement in a game. Ferris’ injury prevented Kidney from trying him in the second row which is a shame, because it would have been great to see all that power in an Irish pack. Reddan is confirmed as first choice half back inside a lightweight Irish back line. Ireland’s wingers are strong, although Tommy Bowe is not robust. However, from O’Gara through to Murphy, it’s a lightweight midfield. O’Gara is probably better coming on as an impact sub, a role he has excelled in, the Ole Gunnar Solksjaer of international rugby.
England go with a heavyweight midfield, Manu Tuilagi lining up beside the man who is 12th in line to the throne. A gas leak in Balmoral this Christmas and it’ll be Mike Tindall who is introduced to the opposition before matches. England also go with a heavyweight pack. Steve Thompson is a more significant prospect than the unconvincing Dylan Hartley and, just like in 1995, England have dispensed with the need for an openside. Ashton and Foden looked dangerous last year but it is likely that England will be a difficult team to beat rather than one that scores tries at will.
The bookies opened with Ireland as narrow favourites but that lasted about half an hour. It’s now a pick’em game and it’s unlikely that Ireland’s lightweight combinations have had enough opportunity to gel. I think England will win this one and that Ben Foden will get himself a try.