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England primed for Dublin date with destiny

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Bryn Palmer | 22:01 UK time, Thursday, 17 March 2011

"I said to them at the start of it, 'This is a great week. It is going to be tense, but let's enjoy it'."

Judging by the mood 48 hours before their Dublin date with destiny, England's players have taken Martin Johnson's words to heart.

The effervescent Chris Ashton is regaling journalists as usual. Shontayne Hape is joshing with Ben Foden about 'bagging' the music of Foden's girlfriend's band The Saturdays.
Steve Thompson is joking about the "bunch of fossils" among the England replacements, and memories of the last time they headed across the Irish Sea on Grand Slam business.

The fact that this year's Six Nations decider will be played on the same patch of real estate - albeit with slightly swankier surroundings - as the last time the red rose contingent were in this position has invited inevitable comparisons this week with 2003.

While my colleague Ben Dirs has already gone into the somewhat spurious nature of such of an exercise, the current side do not appear overly burdened by the prospect of what awaits them at 5pm on Saturday, or how they will be regarded if they emerge victorious.

Nervous anticipation and excitement? For sure. Fear and dread at the thought of fouling up? Far from it.

Shontayne Hape (left) trains with England alongside new centre partner Matt Banahan (right)

Shontayne Hape (left), who has 10 caps, will form a new centre partnership with his Bath team-mate Matt Banahan (right), who will also win his 11th cap on Saturday. Picture: Getty

Hape, 10 caps into his union Test career, may be experiencing the Championship for the first time, but he doesn't attempt to down-play the significance of what might occur in the Irish capital.

"This hasn't been done by an England team since 2003 and the English public have been waiting a long time for it," he says. "As players these are maybe once-in a-lifetime moments. Obviously we have people like Jonny Wilkinson and Steve Thompson who have been there and done it before, but guys like Mark Cueto [who wins his 50th cap on Saturday] have been around for a while and not played in one. For my first Six Nations it has been a dream really. I have played every game, we are 4 and 0 and on the verge of greatness, having to beat Ireland to win a Grand Slam. I can't fault it."

Whether you believe this England team would become 'great' or not by achieving a clean sweep is perhaps a debate we can save for after the game, or even this time next year. Were Wales (2005 and 2008), Ireland (2009) or France last year 'great' teams? Does it matter?

Most people would say sustained success is the model for greatness, and the 2003 England vintage bear that mantle because of what they went on to achieve in the World Cup later that year.

But the history books are not discerning that way. Should England prevail, the class of 2011 will be added to 12 of their predecessors, and 24 others (10 Welsh, nine French, three Scottish and two Irish) in the 108 previous editions of the Championship where one country has won every game.

Certainly it would not be an achievement to be sniffed at, even if clean sweeps have tended to become the norm - strange when you consider the extra game, and that the countries are more closely matched than ever - rather than the exception in the Six Nations era.

If England win on Saturday, it will be the eighth Slam in the last 10 years. But lest anyone think Hape or his team-mates are getting ahead of themselves, the Auckland-born centre is at pains to point out they are still a work in progress.

"We struggled a bit against Scotland last week and as a team we are still learning our lessons. We are still finding out what it takes to be a great team. We are trying to get there, but this is the position we want to be in. We are led by Johnno, and no-one has a better understanding of what it takes - he has been there and done it. I think everyone has faith and trust in each others' ability."

Despite a poor recent record of six defeats from their last seven meetings with Ireland, Dublin should not hold any fear for this emerging England.

They came close to tearing up the script on their last visit two years ago with a team far less capable than the current outfit, only losing by a point.

But then the boot was on the foot. Ireland were the ones with the pressure of a prospective Grand Slam hanging round their necks, and made heavy weather of victory, Brian O'Driscoll dragging his team over the line with a close-range try and a drop-goal.

This time it is England who have to answer the difficult questions. Can they live with the increased expectations? Will they be able to execute their skills at the critical moments, or will the pressure of what's at stake affect them? Will they continue to play a wider game to unleash the attacking prowess in their back three, or retire into a more cautious approach?

"We are not going to back down from what this team does," insisted Johnson on Thursday, a mantra Hape was happy to follow. "It is going to be a great occasion and we have got to make sure we enjoy it. We can't fall into our shells. There are going to be nerves, but we just have to keep doing what we've been doing which has made us successful until now."

Hape, who played in three successive Super League Grand Finals for the Bradford Bulls during his rugby league career, winning two, suddenly finds himself the senior partner at centre with the loss of captain Mike Tindall to injury and the promotion of Hape's Bath team-mate - and England 'roomie' - Matt Banahan to the starting side.

While he acknowledges the loss of Tindall's leadership and communication skills, Hape believes the introduction of the 6ft 7in, 17st 8lb Banahan "adds some spice" to an already combustible mix.

Matt Banahan tries to break through the tackle of Scotland hooker Ross Ford (right) in last week's win at Twickenham

Banahan made a big impression after replacing Tindall against Scotland last week. Picture: Getty

"You have a young guy waiting for his chance and he is probably one of the biggest centres in the world. He showed last week with some blockbusting runs when he came on, he is a hard man to put down. 'Banners' is going to relish the challenge of going up against O'Driscoll. It is a chance for him to make a name for himself for years to come, and he is in great form."

Indeed, while O'Driscoll (111 caps) and Gordon D'Arcy (56) may have the edge in experience and creative nous, England may take refuge in brute force. It would certainly be a surprise if the muscular Banahan was not launched in D'Arcy's general direction in the opening exchanges, mindful of the way Aurelien Rougerie stampeded straight through the 14-stone centre in France's victory's in Dublin last month.

Such a direct approach would be welcomed by some, who believe England have not made enough hard yards in their past two outings before venturing into the wider spaces. Others may view it as further proof of a midfield respected for its defensive solidity, but derided as too one-dimensional and too slow in attack.

For Hape, who along with Tindall has borne the brunt of what criticism has been directed at a winning team, it merely acts as further motivation to reach the goals he set for himself when switching codes and joining Bath three years ago.

"I have been around too long to let that affect me, and so has 'Tins'," said the 30-year-old. "The only way to shut them up is to keep winning and putting in good performances.

"People like to have a stab at me - whether that is because I wasn't born in the country or I played another sport first, I don't know - but it is good to have that. They give you fire in the belly to do what you want to do."

The pyrotechnics won't be just internal on Saturday. With Ireland desperate to avoid equalling their joint worst performance in the Six Nations (two wins in 2008), and a second straight defeat at their spanking new home, a hostile welcome is guaranteed.

"I think the English and Irish are probably not particularly the most friendly [towards each other], so there is going to be fireworks," Hape concludes. Here's hoping.

You can also follow me when I'm out and about - in Dublin this Saturday - on Twitter at http://twitter.com/#!/BBCBrynPalmer

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    I can't wait. While I think Banahan has a lot to learn at o/c, he's got the attributes to cause the Irish backline some trouble. Hape and Banahan need to test the 10/12 channel.

    England are due a good performance after two scrappy games against Scotland and France. Unfortunately, I think Ireland are due one as well.

    Win or lose, it's going to be a cracker.

  • Comment number 2.

    Am I the only one who long term sees Banahan and Flutey being an extraordinarily dangerous mix at centre?

    I really do think that we have missed Flutey this championship, as daft as that sounds. He really is a class act

  • Comment number 3.

    Can people please stop going on about flutey. Yes he has had some good games but if i remember correctly his last outing ina england shirt was dreadful. Ok he has some flair and experience, but let us please look at the positives of Banahan and Hape. Hape is and ever growing talent - 10 caps and he looks solid - Banahan is just a joy to watch - the man is a tank, i love it when he goes on the run (a bit of jonah lomu comes to mind) he also has a bit of attitude up front and is not afraid to get into the face of the opponent. I think he will have an electrifying game and linked with hape, i think we will so something special. I love tindal being a follower of the old breed - but as we have done with our backs we have called on youth and they are delivering - Hape and Banahn will do the same

  • Comment number 4.

    Banahan is not a centre. He is a strong and powerful winger. Hape is certainly not the future, he's possibly the worst 12 of the home nations. Centre is a real problem position for England at the moment. It's a shame as the rest of the squad is very strong.

  • Comment number 5.

    It has gotta be a good thing to have this quandry at centre. Being able to pull a 6ft7 behemoth off the bench is a good position to be in, especially come the World Cup with the Kiwi (Read Pacific Islander!!) monsters coming at you. However, is it just me, or does anyone else have an almost suicidal wish to see Wilkinson tried out at inside centre? Could anyone ilagine a more dangerous (Possibly not in a good way!!?!) partnership than Flood, with the form he has been showing, and Wilko? The problem that I have is that it just seems wrong to have an England team without Wilko in it. His form in France has been exceptional this year. In fact, he is on the shortlist for player of the season over here, (I reside in the land of Croissants and particularly pungent cheeses!!) and perhaps, after Prince William, is the most famous Englishman here!! With Floods strategic nous and innocent exuberence, and Wilkos unbelievable defensive and tackling record, and the pure effect he has on opposing teams, before he has even stepped on the teamsheet, this could be the unorthodox pairing that dreams are made of.

  • Comment number 6.

    I don't understand the criticism levelled at Banahan's conversion to centre. He's massive, quick, and has great hands (look at his contribution to England's length-of-the-field try against the Italians). Sure, he may have plenty to learn, but look at Ma'a Nonu: raw talent when introduced to the AB side, but learnt and grew rapidly into one of the best centres in the world. Someone above drew comparison with Lomu, so he's being compared with two AB greats already. I think there is much to come from him, and am looking forward to seeing him running at BOD and D'Arcy.

  • Comment number 7.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 8.

    I dont think people understand how much rugby has changed in the last few years. Defences are so strong that you need a different type of inside centre. Hape has done OK and is improving, he is stong enough to committ 2 or 3 defenders and use the off load to create space. Banahan has also improved this year. If he can run onto the ball and we use him to run angles at O' Driscoll and Darcy it will be interesting.

    O'Driscoll against Banahan is an interesting match up! Complete opposites in size, style and experience. Ireland will be looking to get O'Drsicoll to turn Banahan. Foden could be busy with a lot of chips over the top.

    Johnson will be watching Banahan closely as he offers a lot if his defence is up to scratch.

  • Comment number 9.

    #3, I'm inclined to agree with you re Flutey. I remember exchanging a couple of posts with Mr Dirs on his blog about a year ago in which he claimed Flutey as one of the best game-breaking centres in the rugby world (or words to that effect). I disagreed then based on a lack of evidence, and my views haven't changed much.

    I have similar concerns to most re Banahan. Defensively, once a player is behind him then he is out of the race. He has the turning circle (and acceleration) of an articulated lorry. On the flip side, he does indeed have much better hands than he is given credit for and if he actually does make the hit in midfield, then his opponent will probably know about it for the next few minutes. On balance, I'm glad he's there. There is enough pace and strength in our back three to provide cover for him.

  • Comment number 10.

    Nice blog Bryn, optimistic while tempered with a subtle dose of reality! :P

    For me, starting Banahan at OC isn't the answer...yes he's big, quick (once up to speed) and about as heavy as a draft horse, but is that really what we need there? Our most dangerous attacking players are Youngs, Ashton and Foden (and if Cueto can re-find a bit of the dazzle he had in the autumn [those 4/5 long, mazy runs agains the Boks and Aus were sublime!]) so putting the ball in the hands of a battering ram, who is doubtless going to be double-teamed high then low, to prevent the offload then take him down, blunts their effectiveness...imho. It's what we're going to do though, so we'll just have to see how it goes!

    Also, regarding Flutey...he's had a distincly average time of things, ok not helped by the unfortunate string of injuries he's picked up, since he returned from the Lions tour 2 years ago...I can't remember watching a game since then that he's stood out in...I'm not saying I've watched all the games he's played in, for Wasps or Brive...but his 'peak' in performance is far better than he's been playing recently...and as such: he's not in contention...He was fantastic a couple of years ago, but recently? I think it's right he's not had a look in...

  • Comment number 11.

    Should England win tomorrow surely it will be the worst center pairing ever to claim a Grand Slam.

    Banahan is fine in club rugby and against international teams with no physical presence butagainst the better sides he's just ineffective. He take so long to reach his top speed, which itself is not very quick, that any decent blitz defence just shuts him down. For a guy weighing 17 stone plus he hardly ever breaks the gain line.

    Hape is a reasonable option for the moment but is currently out of his depth at international level and lacks creativity. I think we will win on saturday against an Irish team playing some poor rugby at the moment but these two aren't the answer if England are to do well in the world cup.

  • Comment number 12.

    Good Blog, but what about us having David Strettle on our team!! I am very excited about what he may bring to the matchm. I know he is somewhat 'fragile' but he can sure run! I am very happy that he has got a spot on the team, I rememebr his excellent break against Wales cutting through 7 red shirts! But then he got injured and was out of the tourny!!

    I think Matt will be great but will have to be on the ball with his defence.

  • Comment number 13.

    Good responses I like what people are saying about banahan and flutey.

    Banhan and Hape may not be everybodys cup of tea - Banahan may not be the quickest until he gets going. I feel that he has the kind of presence though that worries teams. Give him the ball and he will run with it and take as many defenders as possible. Ok maybe not the quickest offloader but to bring him down will take a few defenders leaving space for our backs. Look at the italy game (ashtons third try, it took three italians to take him down - ashotn swooped in behind and with support from easter put the ball over the line. And dont even say he has no pace - ashton fourth try could not have been scored without banahans blistering run down the wing.
    Ok so he is not a natural centre but he offers alot of potential Why are people so insistent that hape is no good - I have not seen any reason to slate him - ok he may have made a few mistakes but he is only human - get off his back a bit and he will do well. I think hape and banahan will be at the front line on saturday and if not score then contribute to trys - that is what it is all about - they will do there job and do it well

  • Comment number 14.

    Just so you know i aint even a Bath fan - so I am not bigging up Banahan just for that reason. H ehas potential and i think I raw desire to prove it - he wants to make an impact _ GO ON BANAHAN - Prove me right

  • Comment number 15.

    Don't tell anyone this but.... i'm starting to like Hape he's got good hands and very solid defence (if not always defensive placement). He's good in contact, though like all league converts does leak penalties if he gets involved in a ruck. All in all though i feel the more he plays union at this level the better he'll become and with the current england team around him and he's clear run in the starting birth at inside centre for bath (due to barkleys unfortunate injury) i think his confidence and play may step up a couple of gears.
    As for Banannas, i'm a prop, so a fast fatty who can smash through people in attack and defence is always appreciated.

  • Comment number 16.

    I'm looking forward to seeing the big man in action tomorrow. I feel that the increased physicality he will bring will ask some serious questions of Irelands midfield. Okay he may lack some top-line pace but Tins isn't exactly a greyhound either!
    My major concern is that loosing Tindell leaves our backs a bit short of experience - something that the Irish will try and exploit.

  • Comment number 17.

    Sorry i misspelt his name i meant Bannanahan

  • Comment number 18.

    One of the revelations in the Austrailian game was runners running onto the ball at pace , the last two games I have noticed passes are being taken at standstill either because runners are too flat or the passes are poor this was a fault running through the side last year and I thought we had got over it. Simple stuff but vital especially with 2 big blokes at centre who cant step or dummy.

  • Comment number 19.

    Who knows....in the end we have to go with what we've actually got. Bringing in an alternative specialist centre at this stage is probably not viable given the need to gel with the team. The alternative of using Wilkinson is a valid argument but I personally think that runs the risk of crocking a rare and beautiful talisman in all the midfield boshing, when he has demonstrated that he is now the "wisehead" who can come on and close out matches. His presence on the bench alone is worth three others. (I wonder if you can get odds on him winning the 2011 RWC with a drop goal?)

    Bannahan brings a number of attributes. He's not a textbook centre (Jeremy Guscott he ain't) but he is very much in the mould of the mega-centres who are now cropping up in teams. He is quicker and has much better hands than he had a year ago. He's already part of the team vibe and he is really, really up for it. It could be a mistake. He could be taken apart by the old fox O'Driscoll himself but until we try we shall never know.

    If he gets into his stride and can receive the ball at pace then he may just be a real handful! May the best team on the day win!

  • Comment number 20.

    Agree with #15 re Hape but not so sure about Banahan.....Seems to be a little slow in any phase other than an attacking one....think his conditioning could be alot better.... although has got better this season.
    If you look at Sonny Bill Williams NZ's Banahan...there is not an ounce of fat on the guy. Suggest that we still need to address this before world cup.
    While on subject of conditioning..... Nick Easter (has the gut of a prop!!!.....would make it into very few other back rows in world Rugby).....
    How is it that every other side in 6 nations has a ripped athlete at 8 and we have a beer swilling, pie muncher.....????

    Please no Wilkinson at 12 unless to create a foil for Flood (ala Catt for Wilkinson in 2003 French SF) nullifies the attacking threat and creates more static midfield...if thats possible!

  • Comment number 21.

    Banahan......mmmmmmm.....Variant spelling of Irish O’Ban(n)aghan, Anglicized form of Gaelic Ó Beannacháin ‘descendant of Beannachán’, a byname from a diminutive of beannach ‘peaked’.

    An Irish 'plant' in the England camp perhaps.......

  • Comment number 22.

    Banahan playing is a positive move. He is inexperienced yes, but what a match to test him in. He has the potential to be a real success in the 13 shirt and I wish him all the best for Dublin.

    There is no doubt that the centres are the weakest area of this rapidly improving team. Its not a personal attack as I believe Hape (I have no issue with his New Zealand roots/Rugby league back ground) and Tindall offer a high workrate, solid defence and a real commitment to the cause. However, they have offered very little in attack. Distribution has been a problem for both players and this stunts the impact of the back three. Ashton, Cueto and Foden have been so dangerous because they have picked lines off both Youngs and Flood. Once teams blitz the halfbacks (Like South Africa in the Autumn and Scotland last week), the attacking game seems to stutter. I personally would like to see a footballing 12. Olly Barkley would be my pick once fit, but he doesn't seem to fit the bill for the England management. Flutey looked like the answer in 2009, but unless he regains the form he showed with England and the lions, I don't think he should be considered. To compliment a 12 of this nature, it would be good to see Banahan or Manu Tuilagi given a run of games in the 13 shirt. We shall see...

  • Comment number 23.

    I agree with a lot of the posts above regarding the lack of flair and creativity in the centres but unfortunaely we just don't have the players in good form at the moment so we have to go with what we have.

    Hape is solid and has a good offloading game and you know what you will get from him. I'll be really interested in seeing how Banahan does against O'Driscoll and D'Arcy. In attack I would love to see him running at pace at D'Arcy or taking the pass from Youngs on th angle and running straight at Sexton/O'Gara. I also think Banahan's strength and effectiveness in supporting the tackled player may help prevent some turnovers when the Irish try to hold the player up and rip the ball as they have done so effectively agaisnt other sides.

    In defence I worry that Banahan relies too much on stepping inside for the big hit and may be exposed by B.O'D leaving an overlap outside him or as others have said a kick through the line.

    If nothing else his passing can't be worse than Tindall's.

  • Comment number 24.

    I’m not Banahan’s biggest fan by any stretch of the imagination, but I think people are a bit quick to write him off. He has just 6 caps. Where in that has it been ‘proven’ that he’s a useless carthorse as soon as he’s put up against a top team?

    Also, you can tell it’s group of England fans talking when Banahan’s acceleration is so frequently brought into question. Contrary to the evidence of the last 7 years of English rugby, it’s not actually mandatory for a centre to take the ball from a standing start. ;)

    Banahan hitting the line at pace is going to draw defenders and create holes, whether he has the ball with him or not. Combine that with a winger who’s main strength is coming in field and exploiting holes that open up and, you know what?, it’s not the stupidest England selection I’ve witnessed.

    When Sonny-Bill Williams came over here in the Autumn everyone was talking about how he was going to single handedly steam-roller over everyone. Give us an even bigger version, and all people can do is complain.

    Banahan isn’t going to smash clean through the defensive line on every possession, but that doesn’t mean that he isn’t still going to be an asset.

    (There. Banahan has now been compared to 3 different All Blacks in one comments thread. That must be some sort of record...)

  • Comment number 25.

    While I love the debate about the right combinations for england the comments so far have written of the Irish talents at centre, wing and fullback not to mention the forward pack.I can see banana+ham tattoo man getting into all sorts of problems tomorrow....it should be a great game and I will be shouting my head off. Good luck to both teams
    pp

  • Comment number 26.

    #18. beeryswine. I have to say I wonder if you and people like you posting similar opinions have watched the same games as I have.

    #15. Largeprop. #13,#14. Twickenhamloyal. I agree with what you say about Banahan and Hape; although, Largeprop, there is not much of the season left that will enable Hape to play IC for Bath for any length of time, and he's going to London Irish next season; which position will he play there?

    #11. rugbyfan1983. I suspect your name gives you away; you are possibly hankering after a past era. Centre play has changed out of all recognition from the amateur era. Big, lock or prop sized centres are almost the norm now. For good or ill, RU centre play more resembles (dare I say it) RL. Keith Senior would not look out of place these days. Hape is clearly aware of the antipathy from a section of the supporters and certain pundits, but if, as he says, it gives him an incentive to do well and prove you lot wrong, keep it up chaps.

  • Comment number 27.

    re #26 dear tea party perhaps you werent watching properly loads of passes over the head on the ground and runners stopping in their tracks to receive passes unlike earlier games where runners were taking the ball at pace without breaking step.

  • Comment number 28.

    The more I think about it, the less I care (as an Englishman) about the result of this match.

    A slam would be great, but the WC is the big prize and I really think we are very close to a side that can really compete, rather than almost win it by fluke like in 07. The pack is more or less set, the only question marks are around the back row where we may lack a bona-fide superstar, but we have fantastic depth and fierce competition for places. The first choice front 5 is as good as any in the world, we have a great scrum, a rapidly improving lineout (Hartley is without doubt our most improved player and hasn’t got the credit he deserves) and all the forwards are willing ball carriers, good defenders and (last week aside) solid at the breakdown.

    The only real question marks I see are 8, 12, and 13.

    If Banahan can hold his own in defence against the quickness and cunning of BOD and D'Arcy, he can do it against anyone and we all know how dangerous he is going forward. If he passes this test, then that is one more selection question answered.

  • Comment number 29.

    And yet more Easter doubters appear. He might be a beer swilling pie muncher but go look at the stats sometime and try and find a harder working forward in the 6N.

    Wilkinson - cant help worrying about the fragility and he is so valuable at the end of the game so I cant help thinking that his best position really is the bench.

  • Comment number 30.

    #29 Yep... agree re Easter but his conditioning does seem a little short in comparison with other 8's in 6N. Imagine how awesome he could be and he is a professional athlete!!!

  • Comment number 31.

    lostinswansea.......I was once lostincardiff.......

  • Comment number 32.

    Neither Hape nor Banahan are the best in world but they are the best we have at the moment. Neither have any real flair and you expect to get "what it says on the tin". I also think that Banahan is a bit of a one trick pony -size matters ?. That said some times that's the trick you need !.

    I think Ireland will see this as a weakness and something BOD will exploit.

    However I have my doubts about D'arcy, so Banahan v D'arcy !!!!

  • Comment number 33.

    lostinswansea.......I was once lostincardiff....... – and you lived to tell the tale ?
    Easter has his detractors (I have been amongst them). He strikes me as being naturally very strong. I am not looking for a ripped model but a No 8. One of the best No 8s I have seen Dean Richards wasn’t the finest looking specimen but god he was a great player. Now I know we are talking different eras but the principle remains the same.
    Easter is regularly high on the list on stats for carries, offloads and tackles made during a game so his pie eating obviously doesn’t affect his performance that much (you may guess that I may be biased here).
    I wish he was a little quicker, I wish he wasn’t by far our best No 8 but the fact remains he rarely plays badly and until there is anybody performing at a consistently higher level he should continue to be picked.
    Of the alternatives Haskell rarely plays 8 for his club. Saints fans tell me Dowson has gone off the boil this season. Narraway struggled for a few years but appears to have improved this season and is worth keeping an eye on. I don’t rate Crane.

  • Comment number 34.

    Thanks for all your comments. Keep them coming. So it sounds as if England have the new Jonah Lomu-Ma'a Nonu-Sonny Bill Williams combined - Matt Banahan is clearly a hell of a player! It was interesting to hear Martin Johnson say that 'Banners' would have played at 13 against Australia in the Test series down under last summer if he hadn't picked up a ban after one of the midweek tour matches. It's clearly something the management have wanted to try for a while, and Tindall's injury - plus Banahan's own form - have given them the chance now. I have to say Banahan has already shown he can sniff out tries at Test level (4 so far in his 10 caps, but only 3 starts), the question is whether his all-round game is better suited to the outside centre role, or as a roving wing who can hit it up coming off his flank. Saturday should answer some of these questions against O'Driscoll, arguably still the best 13 in the world, or at least in Europe.

    For those writing off Flutey, I'd just point out he was at the team hotel yesterday, and has been training with the squad this week, so is clearly still in the mix, even if injuries have hampered his form this season. If he remains fit until the end of the season, I'd expect to see him get a run either against the Baa-Baas on 29 May or in the three RWC warm-up Tests in August, and probably go to the RWC as a second option at 12 with Hape. He has also played a bit at fly-half and 13 so that versatility will be valued when it comes to naming a 30-man squad, and may allow England to take only two fly-halves.




  • Comment number 35.

    Bryn – one small point, Flutey couldn’t be used as cover for 10 as he doesn’t place kick and none of the regular starters kick either (with the possible exception of Armitage). Johnson doesn’t strike me as the type of person who would contemplate a match day 22 without 2 regular kickers, 1 starting and 1 on the bench.
    I think Flutey will travel to RWC as cover for Hape as Johnson doesn’t rate Barclay (horrific injury nonwithstanding) and I can’t think of any other realistic alternatives at 12.

  • Comment number 36.

  • Comment number 37.

    to quote someone earlier 'Banahan will just get doubled up on, high and low'

    That's perfect? Get two players sucked in and start hitting Foden behind him, offering acres of space. Sometimes the best effect of having a battering ram, is not using him at all. All he needs to do is run hard, straight lines and the Irish won't know what to do. Double up on him and be punished out wide, or go 1 on 1 with a 6ft 7 brute coming at pace. I know I don't fancy being an Irish back this weekend.

    Come on boys bring home the Grandslam

  • Comment number 38.

    I've been reading your posts and feel I need to voice my comment for (what it's worth),hence here's my "virgin" posting .
    The Banahan selection may be a slight gamble as he does deserve a shot ,but whether it should be in such a vital grand slam match is either going to be a stroke of genius of MJ's behalf or a case of "you don't know what you're doing!!" .
    Hape should be persisted with as he is a very good rugby player .He has great hands ,is v.good on attack (especially you're a supporting runner who plays off his shoulder),strong in defense (wicked tackler) but fair enough ,as has been said previously ,he needs to work on his positional defensive play .Apart from his error against Wales no oppostion player has outshone him in this months Six Nations .BOD apart ,no other team has inside backs that you can say are currently playing better .Certainly no one has walked all over him so far .Give the man some support ,let him do the job he was picked to do ,he dosen't need to be flashy ,England have some talented outside backs who can do that .

  • Comment number 39.

    Whilst I'm not a huge fan of Hape, I think he does what is able very well. He's rock solid in defence, and makes a ridiculous amount of tackles. I think England's biggest problem is 13. Tindall in my mind is fairly useless.

    Passing? One of the worst in the premiership. How many moves get botched or lose momentum because he throws a pass over the head of the winger, behind the winger, to their feet?

    Defence? Just because he looks solid, I don't particularly rate his defence, he's ok, nothing special.

    Running lines? Does he have any other than straight? Is he ever there for the offload from Hape?

    I just don't think he helps out midfield at all. Trouble is, there aren't many options and his experience prob keeps him in. Bananhan is a tank going forwards with great hands but he lacks the agility and acceleration I'd like to see from a 13 playing off Hape. He's very new to the position, and so close to the WC, I think it's a massive gamble. Always thought Waldouck had the potential to fill this spot but injuries and a lack of a little bulk may hold him back.

    On the Flutey debate. It's amazing how people get written off when they disappear from the international scene for a short time. Injuries have robbed us of a quality player and MJ knows his guile is sorely missed in the midfield. Shame he has just struggled to get fully back to form. I think a run in the side might actually be what he needs but that's another risk. I fear we may never see him again in an England shirt. Post world cup, someone like twelvetrees may be seen as the future.

  • Comment number 40.

    I think the whole game will build from the opening exchanges between Banahan and O'Driscoll. If Banahan can get a good clean run at him early, ball in hand, then O'D will get hammered and we'll have a big advantage from that point. If O'D can get the big man turned and attack in behind, as well as getting up fast to stop him hitting the line at speed, then England are going to need a plan B. Regardless of the way this battle goes, I still think England will be too strong and win, but this could be the difference between a rout and a close one.

  • Comment number 41.

    I think the team will stay relatively unchanged until the World Cup now. If Banahan produces this weekend, he may get a run of games at 13, but other than that its as is. Post World Cup, I think Tuilagi has a real shot at 13 and maybe Allen will fill the 12 birth, if Hape is judged to have been poor in the tournament. Easter... I'm a fan. He is consistent and a good ball carrier. Haskell will eventually get that shirt, but not for the forseeable future. Easter is also one of the most capped men in the side, so his no nonsense, straight talking leadership is a valuable asset. Just to throw another thing in, I'd like to see an out and out 7 given a chance. Granted they would have to show consistent form (Looking at you Steffon Armitage), but against the best sides, the breakdown performance against Scotland would have been punished.

    One last thing, its good to see David Strettle back in the side. His try against Ireland in 2007 and his step and break against Wales at Twickenham in 2008 showed signs of a real talent with potential to score tries at Test level. Be interesting to see if he gets a chance in the upcoming match as I feel he can cause havoc if needed. Think he's possibly a long term Cueto replacement.

  • Comment number 42.

    #23 - finally someone suggesting that Banahan is instructed to run angles at Sexton/O'Gara! My god, imagine the carnage!

    As for the rest putting banahan down because of his attributes, Jamie Roberts gets raved about for the last couple of years, and Banahan is just a bigger version of him? What's the problem?
    Last year, everyone raved about Basteraud. Everyone raves about SBW. You get the point.....

  • Comment number 43.

    "One last thing, its good to see David Strettle back in the SQUAD."

  • Comment number 44.

    Also, how anyone can put Easter down is beyond me. Outstanding player. In fact Englands forwards are all excellent - both starters and the depth, and the average age is impressively low. My favourite has to be Haskell though - the man is an absolute beast!

  • Comment number 45.

    What is wrong with you people?! All this chatter about Banahan reaching his top speed is utter rubbish. He's deceptively quick and is far, far quicker than Tindall and Hape. Scotland game, he took 3 strides at a jog, received the ball and accelerated into Kelly Brown, smashing him to the floor. He didn't have time to "get up to speed" there and he basically injected pace, drive and determination as well as direct running into the game which actually changed the whole game dynamic for England's backs as suddenly there was a target to hit. Not only this, but the guy has really good hands and with being so tall is an option for drifting to the wing to collect high balls. Also, this man will smash a ruck as well giving the team time to regroup.

    On the flip side, his postioning for tackling is sometimes off but he will learn. Nonu had this problem and there's nothing wrong with his tackling now.

    Give the guy a break. He's learning and for years we've all been moaning about players not getting a look in.

    Wait until next year though. Banahan and Manu Tuilagi is a mouth watering combo, and Tuilagi's got hands too!

  • Comment number 46.

    That should read, "young players not getting a look in".

  • Comment number 47.

    Banners offers a much better chance of breaking the gain line than Tindell and is improving whereas Tindell is declining. With the pace and ability provided by the back three i can see him causing havoc in the midfield with the fliers making use of the holes he will make.

  • Comment number 48.

    37. At 12:37pm on 18 Mar 2011, MikeyJ wrote:
    to quote someone earlier 'Banahan will just get doubled up on, high and low'

    That's perfect? Get two players sucked in and start hitting Foden behind him, offering acres of space. Sometimes the best effect of having a battering ram, is not using him at all. All he needs to do is run hard, straight lines and the Irish won't know what to do. Double up on him and be punished out wide, or go 1 on 1 with a 6ft 7 brute coming at pace. I know I don't fancy being an Irish back this weekend.

    Come on boys bring home the Grandslam


    The Irish wont know what to do??
    O'driscoll is probably the best defensive back in world rugby, he will deal with him quite easily on his own.

  • Comment number 49.

    I would love to see Wilkinson get a run out at inside centre with Flood at 10. Too risky for this tournament but in the pre-world cup friendlies. I just think it would give england a different option - Scotland put pressure on Flood and Youngs and it was left to Hape and Tindall to create something - and look what happened. Wilkinson has the defensive ability and creativity to make a good 12 and can take on some kicking responsibilities - plus always good to have him around in you are within drop goal range!

    Also another point - why is Lawes not back in the squad for the Ireland game - he is the future, why does Johno insist on sticking with Lawes and Deacon - both offer very little. I'm very concerned he is overlooking an world class talent so close to a World Cup.

  • Comment number 50.

    *Shaw and Deacon

  • Comment number 51.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 52.

    tellhurlock, it was my post about double tackling Bannahan!

    I agree it would be perfect...but I've yet to see Bannahan offload when wrapped high...he may be dragged an extra metre... but if he can't offload afterward...what's the point? more slow ball and pressure back on Youngs...the point I made was that I'd like to see a 'handsy' OC who could distribute to Foden and Ashton...

    We can live in hope! ;)

  • Comment number 53.

    No worries mate.
    I just dont get the hype with Bannahan and if anything i believe O'Driscoll is at his best when his opposite number is a big battering ram. Even though the Irish lost against Wales last week, Jamie Roberts made no yardage whatsoever against BOD and hes a far better player than Bannahan.

  • Comment number 54.

    I don't think there has been many stand out inside centre's this tournament in all fairness. The French have struggled with both Traille and Jauzion, Jamie Roberts has had a very quiet tournament by his high standards. Gorden D'arcy has been very poor as well agains considering he's a very talented centre. The only centres, from my view point, to have had a good tournament have been Sean Lamont (i know a winger but he's adapted well) and Canale of Italy (he may have been outside centre I can't quite remember but still a good tournament in my view. Now i'm not say Hape has been setting the world alight but he's been fairly solid and has done the job that Martin Johnson has told him to do. No doubt there are plenty of younger replacements coming through the ranks (feel very sorry for allen not to be there yet, also manu tuilagi looks very promising) but at the moment he's what we've got and i think he's not had a bad tournament. It's hard to look really good with Ashton swan diving over the line every 5 mins and Flood and Joungs running the show. As i've said before, Will Greenwood get procreating we need another world cup winning centre!

  • Comment number 55.

    Re : Will Greenwood comments – I should imagine Will is mightily relieved to have played when he did. The modern centres are huge in comparison to him who struggled to bulk up sufficiently even for the times he played in. If he is busy procreating a future England centre hopefully he will have chosen a lady of certain frame to provide the necessary bulk to the gene mix (I’m kind of thinking of a female version of Jonah Lomu).

  • Comment number 56.

    I think that the criticsm of Hape and 'Banners' is a bit over the top- Banahan isnt the complete article, but look at who hes replacing... people are having a go cos hes too slow- but a tenner says hes quicker than Tindall! (over 10m OR 100m) He also gets grief for hands/passing- again, I say to you Tindall! But then again I am haunted by memories of Jamie Noon at 13 (can anyone name a smaller crash ball centre than him?!)
    Granted youre losing a bit of defence in the swap, but the fact is we have plenty of pace outside him and he has improved getting his hands through the tackle and offloading. As for the stick Hape gets, I dont think hes had any shockers, I just think hes been steady, with the occasional flash of his full potential, but I cant see anyone clearly more deserving of his place (whilst Flutey stays out of form anyway.) Would quite like to see big Manu in the mix this time next year though!!!

  • Comment number 57.

    Just learned that I'll have to miss the match! SHATTERED.
    Good luck England. Godspeed.

  • Comment number 58.

    If England do manage to win the Grand Slam this year, one has to say it will probably be the poorest Grand Slam winning side in the tournament's history (i.e. this century).

    Very disappointing performances from the French, an ageing Irish side which has frankly seen better days, and a Welsh outfit which has never really lived up to the bang with which the Gatland/Edwards era began, have combined to pretty much hand the title to Martin Johnson's journeymen by default.

    In a way it is admirable when a country punches above its weight - as when the relatively mediocre side of 2003 sprung the surprise of lifting the Webb Ellis cup. But don't expect any repeat of that this year. In terms of serious contention, the gap between the northern and southern hemispheres is as wide as it has ever been.

    I admit it's a bit embarrassing for any sport when, in its quadrennial international showcase tournament, open to all nations of the earth, a single country starts at odds-on to win the trophy. Especially when that country has a population comparable to the Birmingham metropolitan area.

    But that's what we're looking at in 2011.

  • Comment number 59.

    @58...

    1) I agree the other teams have not been good but England have still beaten them, thats all that can be asked of them.

    2) "Mediocre Side of 2003" which was the firm favourites and number 1 side in the world for the year preceding the world cup including being unbeaten against the alledged southern hemisphere powerhouses.

    3) I assumethe fatuous comments regarding the favourites means New Zealand, the side that has choked so many times in World Cup competitions their coaches get taught the heimlich maneouvre as part of their basic training.

  • Comment number 60.

    #59 no no no - g k is a straightforward and pretty artless WUM. Do not rise to the bait please.

  • Comment number 61.

    @58 Which planet did you wake up on this morning?

    Good luck tomorrow England!!! :-)

  • Comment number 62.

    This is to G_K___.

    I’ve a question for you to wriggle out of. Where are you from? I had a look through some of your past comments and you're a fool. What are you, a sulking Scot by any chance? I know, maybe you’re a disgruntled Irishman, or maybe a bottom lip dragging Welshman? To be honest I don't really care, well I must do as your inane drivel has tweaked my nationalistic pride. However, regardless what country coughed you up, I’m willing to bet you reside in good old England?

    Good luck England and make us proud regardless.


    Matt..

  • Comment number 63.

    15-Keith Earls, 14-Tommy Bowe, 13-Brian O'Driscoll (captain), 12-Gordon D'Arcy, 11-Andrew Trimble, 10-Jonathan Sexton, 9-Eoin Reddan; 1-Cian Healy, 2-Rory Best, 3-Mike Ross, 4-Donncha O'Callaghan, 5-Paul O'Connell, 6-Sean O'Brien, 7-David Wallace, 8-Jamie Heaslip

    All I see is England England ....the usual rubbish , we are going to show you a lesson in rugby today that you wont forget for a long time.
    Its been a bad 6 Nations with no teams playing that well and I think none of the 6 will make any impact in New Zealand .

    Going back to todays game watch out for Bowe , Heaslip and O´Driscoll . Yee wont be so cocky when its all over...what am I saying yee will!

  • Comment number 64.

    it is worrying to see what Rougerie did to D'Arcy, I can see banahan given the ball early doors and doing the same thing. but Banahans size could also work against hom his atera movement is not very good and I can see ireland exploit this and target him in attack.

    Now one thing that is doing my head in..Tom Palmer a couple of weeks ago said that England have such a pool of players to choose from yadee daa dee daa, then USE them , stop picking KIWI Rugby league players or YAnkee props,, its as bad as the cricket team,, who have just called up another Saffer,, thats: trot, peiterson, strauss,keiswetter, prior, and now Jade Denbache,, used in the last 6 months ,, 6 of the 11 Saffers oh yes plus Morgan. its diabolical.. I remember the Irish getting panned for picking a few footballers who had the odd irish granny, but this is ridiculous. with such a pool of players so much bigger than everyone else in rugby why cant they play with a straight bat... and please whoever is trying to compare BAnahan with Sonny bill WIlliams...PLLLEEEAAASSSEEE!!!!! Like comparing Arkle to a Drey horse

  • Comment number 65.

    daithi

    It's all England on the chat as it is mainly English people reading the blog. Do get over it. I'm sure there are plenty of rugby forums talking about nothing but the Irish team. If that upsets you I would urge you to write to the BBC complaints dept, who would take it further it need be. But I would imagine you'd just get laughed at for being a bit silly and a very sensitive.

    Personally I can't wait for the game. Sextons/ROG's defensive record isn't brilliant. Running Banners at them will mean Ireland will have to bring a back row player to cover. Could be very good idea. All I hope is that England don;t under commit at the breakdown. Other wise Ireland will have a field day.

    I think a good target (a side from winning!) is to keep the Irish out. Not to concede any trys and to stop with the silly errors that made Scotland harder work than they needed to be!

  • Comment number 66.

    I will now sum up my knowledge of rugby in 3 words....




    KICK IT JONNY!!!

  • Comment number 67.

    @63 Do you by any chance come from the same planet as post 58?

  • Comment number 68.

    I dedicate this video to posts 58 and 63, plus all other bloggers who polute these pages with bizarre comments about English rugby.

    England 2001-2003: The Golden Era :-))

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c2USK9DolxU

  • Comment number 69.

    fyi............Banahan started at the London Irish academy before switching to Bath originally as a lock in 2006. He has come a long way very quickly and but does not have the experience or vision to dominate his position....I hope he does well but suspect he will be exposed by a very hungry Irish squad. May the best team win.

  • Comment number 70.

    I do not understand the English mentality! They show fantastic services but at crucial moments, they show 30% less than they can. Whether rugby, football or whatever. Instead of enjoying his great abilities and to reach the top covered with joy, they anxiously into himself and throw away the success without hardship. such as how a 1500-meter runner who has 200 yards from the finish line 20 meters ahead and instead of Joy to run to the finish and to enjoy the victory, he looked anxiously around, he says must "catched" continue and will always be slower, it can be cramped and centimeter pass before the finish. Sorry but that is stupid! Although I know that the English have something left for tragic stories but that must not be true.

  • Comment number 71.

    @ legs1973...........I suspect sir you have your head up a very dark place right now....that was a very poor performance by England who were exposed by a team with a point to prove. Have a look at your pre match comments and take a while to respond meaningfully. PP

  • Comment number 72.

    @59, 60, 61, 62 -

    Where are ya now? :)

    I will resist the temptation to milk the moment. We all saw the match.

    Great performance Ireland: the team may be ageing, but they still have the heart and the focus. And on a forward-looking note, great performance Sexton.

  • Comment number 73.

    Incidentally, on the question of the 2003 England side being mediocre, I stand by my description unreservedly.

    Let's be perfectly honest, for the winning nation to amass a total of two tries in the knockout stages of the competition is - well, pretty pathetic.

 

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