Ireland v England, Six Nations, Lansdowne Road, March 19
England face a crucial test
Graham Jenkins in Dublin
March 18, 2011
Can Martin Johnson's England side match the Class of '03 and capture a Grand Slam © Getty Images
England's showdown with Ireland in Dublin will not only decide the outcome of this year's Six Nations. It will also determine whether Martin Johnson's side are the real deal.
Victories over Wales, Italy, France and Scotland have brought them to the brink of their first title and clean sweep since 2003 but questions remain, and they can only be answered at Lansdowne Road.
England survived the verbal grenades of Wales coach Warren Gatland and the cauldron-like atmosphere of the Millennium Stadium in week one but may have been a little fortunate. Luck was also on their side when a meek Italian side turned up at Twickenham, but they can only beat what is in front of them - they did so in emphatic style.
The creative spark was largely missing against France but they out-muscled the defending champions with brutal physicality. There was more of the same against Scotland, with forward efficiency the key to success.
The shortcomings of their opponents have overshadowed their achievements but the showdown with Ireland offers a chance to silence the doubters. It is set to be their toughest test so far and they will ne need to raise their game if they are to cement their development with a rare piece of silverware.
If the pressure of the occasion is not enough of a hurdle for a largely inexperienced side to tackle, then add in an Irish side determined to avoid a defeat that would equal their worst ever Six Nations performance.
Such an outcome would perhaps be harsh on a side that could be challenging for their own Grand Slam if it were not for their own generosity. On any other weekend the injustice that befell them against Wales would have the fires burning, but no such motivation is needed when England are in town. Let us not forget that Ireland have won six out of their last seven encounters with their old rivals.
England know even a narrow defeat will bring them the Six Nations crown but that fact will be of little concern to Johnson and Co. This weekend is all about the Grand Slam and failure to complete the job will be seen as a major missed opportunity, to rank alongside the agony of 2001 when Ireland captain Keith Wood burrowed over to bury England. More importantly defeat will rob them of the priceless momentum they have worked hard to muster since a mauling at the hands of the Springboks in November.
With a World Cup on the horizon and precious little time to work with, defeat of any kind could be damaging in terms of their challenge for the sport's biggest prize. Belief and confidence is evidently high within the England camp but defeat in their last competitive outing before the big one kicks off in September would be a significant blow, albeit one greeted with a smile by the southern hemisphere giants, who will have seen little to worry them in recent weeks.
In contrast, victory in such a high-pressure game, in a hostile environment and against a side determined to throw a spanner in the works, will not only bring them a much-prized Slam but confirm the belief that they have the makings of something special. The manner of that victory does not matter not at this stage of the season.
This year is all about the World Cup and Johnson's reliance on just 17 different starting players illustrates that he is focused on forming a battle-hardened group prior to their latest assault on the game's biggest prize. He is blessed with strength in depth and injuries have only served to reinforce that fact. England have not broken stride and not even the loss of two captains, in the form of Lewis Moody and Mike Tindall, has rattled them.
No doubt it helps that they have a leader of Johnson's calibre guiding them from the stands. The former Leicester lock led England on that day in 2003, when they crushed Ireland to capture the Six Nations crown and the Grand Slam.
He has always been keen to stress that his squad is full of leaders but they do not have the same luxuries as the Class of '03 ,when the likes of Jason Leonard, Lawrence Dallaglio, Neil Back, Jonny Wilkinson, Mike Catt and Will Greenwood formed an unrivalled brains trust.
That makes for another vital test of the current crop's title credentials. It remains to be seen if they make a headline-grabbing statement, akin to that made by Johnson in 2003 when he refused to budge after he and his England side had lined up on the wrong side for the pre-match presentations.
Success this weekend will see Johnson cement his legendary status in the game. Only seven men have won a Grand Slam as a player and a coach - John Dawes, Jacques Fouroux, Roger Uttley, Jean-Claude Skrela, Pierre Villepreux, Marc Lievremont and Clive Woodward - and only Dawes and Fouroux can boast the captain-coach double.
Johnson would relish the opportunity to play in Saturday's game but this time he must make do with a seat in the stands. He will be braced for a gruelling 80 minutes, but it is unlikely to be as frustrating as his last visit to Dublin, when England's 'yellow fever' struck once again. Just two years on this England side is a much more composed and refined rugby machine. Can they deliver when it matters most?
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Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum.