Six Nations: Preview of all the weekend’s action

By Rhys Hayward

martin johnson

England might still potentially win a grand slam this year but you would be forgiven for missing that fact over the last two weeks.

So abject were Martin Johnson’s side in defeating Italy that they host Ireland this afternoon with, if anything more to prove than prior to their impressive opening day victory over Wales. England still stubbornly refuse to take anything greater than baby steps towards becoming a more fluent rugby side and for the legions of critics, the stumbling effort in Rome was back to square one.

And yet it would be typical of England to once again will themselves to a win over an Ireland side who were convincingly put to the sword by a rampant France in Paris two weeks ago. Anything could happen.

Martin Johnson has responded to the potential selection headaches posed by the Rome fiasco by popping a couple of Anadin, grinning and bearing it. So England are unchanged — a rarity in these injury ravaged times — and the likes of Johnny Wilkinson and captain Steve Borthwick will once again be in the limelight.

Johnson’s loyalty to the man who kicked England to a World Cup win almost seven years ago is perfectly understandable but patience amongst the rugby community is wearing thin. Wilkinson can hardly be blamed exclusively for England’s disjointedness but he appears to wilt in his leadership role and his kicking from hand, arguably the key component in a modern outside-half’s armoury, has been quite awful.

Still, English rugby excels in adversity and Johnson is pragmatic enough to know that at least with Wilkinson there is a good chance he can convert a large proportion of their kicks at goal (Rome presumably being an anomaly), and maximise their point gathering potential. And with the likes of Matthew Tait and Danny Care providing much needed — if sporadic — spark behind a pack who seem to have curbed last season’s disciplinary concerns, England refuse to be written off.

Ireland meanwhile should be heading to Twickenham as favourites but such is the importance of momentum in this peculiar tournament that they will have to turn up the intensity to escape with the win.

Up front the tight-head prop John Hayes becomes the first Irishman to reach a century of Test caps though he will scrum down next to a different hooker; Rory Best replacing the suspended Jerry Flannery.

Meanwhile, the absence of the talismanic Rob Kearney at full-back will be a huge blow in a match that may regularly slip into bouts of aerial ‘ping-pong,’ though Johnny Sexton’s selection ahead of that perennial king of the boot, Ronan O’Gara may signal some Celtic flair from the Six nations holders. That may be wishful thinking however. With so much resting on the result for both sides an edgy, uninspiring encounter seems almost inevitable.

Scotland travel to Rome for the afternoon’s early kick off still smarting from their astonishing capitulation in Cardiff two weeks previously, without their trio of injured backs and with much resting on the shoulders of their impressive back row.

The Italians too will be confident following their gritty performance against England but with the familiar billing of ‘wooden spoon decider,’ hanging over both teams’ heads and both coaches in need of a victory, predicting a result is almost impossible.

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