TOMORROW – 5.00PM BBC1
GRAND Slam, Grand Slam, Grand Slam. These words will be skipping through the minds of every England player before tomorrow’s clash gets underway at Dublin’s Aviva Stadium.
Their last two performances against Scotland and France tempered a lot of the hyperbole about this England XV being a great team and there are few who now think that winning the Grand Slam in Ireland will be easy. The Boys in Green boast an impressive record against their opponents tomorrow, having won six of the last seven matches. However, the layers still give the Red Rose the best chance, with most handing Ireland a four-point start, and there is plenty to suggest that Martin Johnson and his men will return home to prepare for the World Cup with a flawless 2011 Six Nations Championship record behind them.
Many have asked whether the relative inexperience of the England team will cause them to fall at the final hurdle in their bid for the clean sweep, but Johnson has done well to build a young team around players that have been there before. Jonny Wilkinson played out of his skin when his side trounced Ireland 42-6 in the Grand Slam decider eight years ago, at the old Lansdowne Road, and his experience will be invaluable in the camp, as will the words of sidelined captain Mike Tindall, who scored a try in that match.
Even in their wins against Wales and France, Ireland’s performances were riddled with handling errors and bad decisions and they could quite easily have lost both of those matches. A change of venue for the Irish, away from their home of the past few years, Croke Park, may even play into the hands of the visitors. England did not win in their two Six Nations fixtures at that venue, while Lansdowne Road, old or new, holds no such perceived hoodoo.
Of course, Declan Kidney and Brian O’Driscoll will fancy their chances of breaking hearts across the Irish Sea, but while England did not succeed in spectacular fashion last weekend, they did prove that they can do whatever it takes and even win ugly if that is what is called for. Witnessing the team’s spirit against Scotland was almost as encouraging as cheering try after try against the Italians. I predict that Johnson’s young charges will need to call on that character again but will nevertheless have too much for the Irish. It will be close, but I have no hesitation in backing a handicapped England with Victor Chandler, who are offering evens on Six Nations handicaps again. England were level at the break against the Scots, each team scoring three penalties apiece before the game opened up in the second-half. If we expect a slightly nervous England and an eager Ireland, there’s every chance this game could progress in a similar fashion to that contest at Twickenham. The 18/1 available with William Hill for a draw at half-time and England to lead at the end of the match is therefore appealing, as is a sell of total match points at 40 with Sporting Index.