Later today, kicking off at 4pm, England play Ireland in the Six Nations rugby union tournament.
This is, on paper, the toughest game England has faced since they won the World Cup in Australia last November. But it is also the true homecoming of the England team, because today, after beating the tournament’s two weakest sides, Italy in Italy and Scotland in Scotland, they now play the first of their two games this year at Twickenham. When England get on top at Twickenham the home crowd roars them on and, in effect, doubles the winning margin.
Several other things make me optimistic about tomorrow’s game.
England’s forwards, now without their revered but retired World Cup captain Martin Johnson, are going through changes, which makes me hope that England will really want to get points by scoring tries as well as just by grinding forward with the forwards. The England backs have looked promising for years now, and they still do, and I live in hope that one day they will blow someone completely away with a dazzling performance. Could this happen today? Jason Robinson seems to get better and better with every game – and it adds immensely to his aura and must also add to his confidence that he got England’s only try (a very good one) in the World Cup Final. Josh Lewsey is also improving. And Ian Balshaw is getting back to his best of two years ago. Greenwood and Cohen also know quite a bit about how to play rugby. Plus, there is no Jonny Wilkinson to rely on to kick twenty points, which gives England an extra incentive to play fast and furious.
In general, playing for England is now the hottest ticket in world rugby, and England coach Clive (now Sir Clive) Woodward’s ruthless willingness to sack people as and when he thinks he needs to makes competition to stay in the side ferocious. World Cup Heroes know that they are not sacrosanct and nearly men know they have a good chance of being picked Real Soon Now. So when you do play for England these days, you just know that you have to play really well to keep on playing.
But do not write off Ireland. They came within a kick of beating losing finalists Australia in the World Cup. Brian O’Driscoll played a blinder a fortnight ago when Ireland blew Wales away in what looked beforehand like being one of the closest games of the entire tournament. And England will not underestimate them. Any more than England underestimated Ireland last year, when they thrashed them last year in Dublin.
What I am saying is: (a) England’s best is good enough now to blow Ireland off the pitch, and (b) there is every reason to hope that England will indeed play at their best.
Not that you can ever be sure with sport. As I say, Ireland/Wales was supposed to be close this year. And it is a rare Six Nations when there are no big surprises.
I won’t be saying much more here about this game. I will just add an addendum here tomorrow with the score. The told-you-so-ing or egg-off-face wiping will all be happening at Ubersportingpundit.
UPDATE (5.55pm): Clang. England 13 Ireland 19. Time to scrape all that muck off my face and make an omelette with it.