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There's lions and tigers out there

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Bryn Palmer | 13:40 UK time, Thursday, 26 February 2009

For all the talk of Wales taking another stride towards a second straight Grand Slam in Paris on Friday night, events in Dublin on Saturday could have an equally telling impact in shaping the outcome of this year's Six Nations Championship.

If Ireland are understandably keen to play down expectations in the wake of past failures, victory over England will make it even harder to convince everyone they won't be heading to Cardiff on 21 March with at least a shot at the title.

Gordon D'Arcy, Brian O'Driscoll, Luke Fitzgerald

There would still be the matter of a trip to Murrayfield to negotiate of course. The Irish did trip up in the Scottish capital in 2001, but have won there on each of their last three Six Nations visits.

Despite England's improved display in Cardiff, it will be a huge surprise if Martin Johnson's men emerge from Croke Park as winners.

Two years ago at the same venue, Brian Ashton's team conceded a record number of points by an English team in championship history, obliterated 43-13 by an Irish side desperate to make up for fluffing their lines on opening-night at their new home against France.

A similarly one-sided affair seems unlikely, but Ireland have already collected eight tries from their first two Six Nations games and have a spring in their step.

While seven of their starting side are 50-plus Test veterans, with two more on the bench, an infusion of youth and a more flexible game-plan has given the Irish fresh impetus under new coach Declan Kidney.

The likes of Rob Kearney, Tommy Bowe, Luke Fitzgerald, Stephen Ferris and Jamie Heaslip are not only establishing themselves as Test match animals; they have also announced themselves as Lions contenders.

Indeed, if they, or England's aspiring tourists, need any more motivation, Saturday's set-to in Dublin is one of only four remaining opportunities for Lions head coach Ian McGeechan to see players in direct competition for places going head-to-head.

There is still Scotland v Ireland in the penultimate round of matches, and England v Scotland and Wales v Ireland on the final day. But that is it, apart from the Heineken Cup quarter-finals on the second weekend of April, before McGeechan finalises his squad.

What better time then, if you are an Irish or English player, to put one over your opposite number and produce a performance that has "Lions tourist" stamped all over it?

Can Andrew Sheridan and Phil Vickery expose John Hayes and Marcus Horan at scrum-time, or will the much-maligned Irish props continue to defy predictions of weakness?

Will England hooker Lee Mears rediscover some of his autumn verve, or will the fiery Jerry Flannery stoke the fires of his own Lions ambition?

Can under-fire England captain Steve Borthwick and the spring-heeled Nick Kennedy make any impression on the potent Irish locking duo of Paul O'Connell and Donncha O'Callaghan, two likely Lions tourists alongside Welsh giant Alun Wyn Jones?

In the back row, can Heaslip, Ferris and David Wallace maintain the dynamism that will be required on the hard grounds of South Africa, or will James Haskell and Joe Worsley man the barricades as effectively as they did against Wales?

Will Toby Flood justify the faith placed in him as a Test fly-half for England, or will another Ronan O'Gara masterclass in game management earn him a third Lions tour of duty?

The Irish players, having dispatched France and Italy, now face three games in a row against their direct home nations opponents for Lions places.

More pertinently perhaps, three games that could conceivably yield a first Irish Grand Slam in 61 years, or merely a first Six Nations title.

Regardless of whether Wales do the business in Paris on Friday, Ireland are not short of incentives to beat England.

Could this be the year when the Celtic Tiger finally bares its teeth?


  • Comment number 1.

    Is this the start of the Welsh psychological campaign against the Irish? Talk them up as favourites in the hope that they bottle it yet again? It's actually quite a compliment, and perhaps a fatal flaw, that Wales have one eye on Ireland already before taking to the pitch in Paris......Let's focus on games 3 and 4 of the championship before talk of a grand-slam decider shall we?

  • Comment number 2.

    i think England will compete. There, I've said it... There won't be a whitewash.

  • Comment number 3.

    I cant see how England will win this in Ireland, they will be far to 'up for it' at Croke Park.

  • Comment number 4.

    We are starting to know about the players who will go with the Lions to South Africa. But how are we going to get Declan Kidney out there? Would be criminal to leave him at home.

  • Comment number 5.

    Ireland always seem to be the favorites and just bottle it. 07 world cup is a prime example. They wont win the 6 nations Wales all the way with England a close second.

  • Comment number 6.

    As it stands, there are very few Englishmen knocking on the door for the Lions. The idea of Toby Flood as the Lions number 10 is a bit far-fetched.

    Delon Armitage might have a shout if he weren't unfortunate enough to be up against Lee Byrne and Rob Kearney in that position.

    Perhaps one of the front-rowers will stake a claim, but I can't see there being any English players from 4 - 15 when the Lions front up for the first test in South Africa. They might struggle to find a place for the token Scotsman as well (Mike Blair?).

  • Comment number 7.

    Fitzexpat - totally agree, it would be very useful to have Declan Kidney on the Lions coaching staff, the only problem I would see is that he is such a good man manager, organising the coaching team etc that I am not sure it would be the best use of his ability just being a member of the staff. That said I am not arguing with McGeechan's appointment.

    Intersting article - one thing concerns me about the Ireland setup at the moment and that is the lack of replacement for O'Gara. It was obvious in Rome that there was no suitable alternative once RoG was in the bin and Wallace was having his face put back together....O'Driscoll should not have to be taking the touch kicks - albeit a straightforward heave into the stand.

  • Comment number 8.

    Just to keep the tournament interesting, wins for France and England this weekend would leave 4 teams in with a shout. The England win may be fairly unlikely though.

    For the Lions at the moment you have to pick the Welsh team en masse and then look at the Irish team for a few improvements (O'Driscoll, Heaslip, O'Connell) and then that's about it. Any English / Scots players on the tour will have their weekends free!

  • Comment number 9.

    It is very obviously the year of the Celts. . .

    the only question is which one is it going to be?

  • Comment number 10.

    what about harry ellis he has been in great from and i know phillips is playing well but ellis is still coming back really and if he can get english backs movin what will he do with a line that likes running the ball he is good at ruck time and is always a threat around the base admittedly not many other english players will be looking at a starting place other than sheridan if only if could find an ounce of form

  • Comment number 11.

    There is something I want to get off my chest. I think England have a much better chance than people are prepared to give them. I honestly believe that.

  • Comment number 12.

    in a word will Ireland win slam ,No! in 2 words No Chance and in three No Bloody Chance.

  • Comment number 13.

    This is the best Irish side I have seen for a generation. At long last they appear to have clicked and not only that, but are clearly capable of getting better. They also have that fire and flair combination that has been at best inconsistent in recent years. I believe they will stuff England tomorrow and if Wales can make it past France tonight (not an easy task), then the decider (with respect to the currently poor Scotland and Italy) next month will be fantastic.

    That will be the sort of game that get's young people playing the game, not to mention the resulting 'sesh' in Cardiff!

    Maybe, if Wales and Ireland are going to be so much better than the rest every year, we should pull out of the competition and play the southern hemisphere teams? It may do huge damage to the game we love but heh, think how much more money we would make?

    Oh no, sorry. That was England's policy when they were winning.

  • Comment number 14.

    I don't quite understand why everyone thinks Wales are so amazing. The France score quite clearly proves this. Ireland for a well earned grand slam. The rest of the teams are not worth talking about.

  • Comment number 15.

    France deserved to win and beat the Welsh last night. Their game plan was simple, but ruthlessly effective. The game could have been sealed in the first half. France were denied a try and one Welsh player should have been sin binned in the first half. The Welsh can blame individual errors, but France was superior on the night. A great win and I hope the start of many more thrilling games from 'Les Petits'.

  • Comment number 16.

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

  • Comment number 17.

    Martin Johnson acknowledges that his team gave away 18 penalties in the match today. What possible justification can there be for 18 deliberate fouls in a game which lasts only 80 minutes?
    Furthermore, it is nonsense for him to say that indiscipline cost England the game. If England had not deliberately fouled 18 times Ireland would have had much more good possession of the football and would have won by a bigger margin.


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