Crunch time for Ireland and England

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DUBLIN, February 27, 2009 (AFP) – It's hard to know whether it is Ireland or England who will be under the greater pressure in Saturday's Six Nations international here at Croke Park.

ENGLAND_RUGBYDefeat for Ireland, unbeaten in the Championship so far, will extend a 61-year wait for only their second Grand Slam by another season and yet again raise questions about why a talented side keeps missing out on the big prize.

For England another loss will have supporters wondering when their team will next beat a major nation.

Martin Johnson may have been an inspirational captain when England won the World Cup in 2003 but the jury remains out on his impact as manager.

His decision to start with Toby Flood, the only alteration to the side that kicked-off in the 23-15 loss to Grand Slam champions Wales, means England will have changed their starting outside-half seven times in 10 matches.

To have such flux in a piviotal position is far from ideal. And the fact Johnson has brought in Flood, 11 of whose 23 Tests have come off the bench, for the man he replaced in Cardiff, Andy Goode, ensures there is once again no place for the gifted Danny Cipriani.

In last year’s corresponding fixture at Twickenham, the Wasps stand-off, on his full debut, produced a commanding display as England won 33-10.

"Cipriani is a quality player, no doubt about it," said Ireland backs coach Alan Gaffney. "But maybe at this point in time he is just not the controlling No 10 Martin Johnson wants."

England have had eight yellow cards awarded against them in three matches and their discipline is sure to be tested by a battle-hardened Ireland pack.

"They want to drive the ball a bit at lineouts and take that physical challenge," Johnson said of Ireland.

"But they are not one-dimensional," he added of a team where new coach Declan Kidney appears to have loosened the shackles.

In the backs, Ireland captain Brian O’Driscoll has shown signs of his best form, particularly in the hard-fought opener against France.

"In the France match, Brian broke the line and scored," said Johnson. "Not many can do that in top internationals. We know he can be lethal."

Former Ireland and England coach Brian Ashton has said Ireland’s three Triple Crowns (where one of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales beats all the others in the same Six Nations season) in the past four years represent a "runners-up prize".

Ireland haven’t won this tournament since 1985, when it was then still the Five Nations, and team manager Paul McNaughton admitted: "Some of the players feel they’ve let a couple of Championships go.

"They are very motivated by that and very anxious to finish their careers with a Championship or a Grand Slam."

Two years ago Ireland recorded their biggest win against England with a 43-13 success.

That was the first match between the sides played at Croke Park, the home of Irish Gaelic sport and a ground where, up until 2007, rugby had been banned because of its ‘foreign’ status.

The astonishing passion of that day has gone even though Ireland can still expect to be roared on by a ‘Croker’ crowd of some 80,000 this weekend.

"That historical occasion is over," said McNaughton. "Now there’s more of a sense that this is the third game in the Championship.

"If we win this we will have a shout at the Championship come the last game no matter what happens with the other results."

England were an improved side against Wales, scoring two tries and with flanker Joe Worsley outstanding in defence.

But they still lack nous, both on and off the field.

England attack coach Brian Smith’s criticisms of South African referee Jonathan Kaplan’s handling of the Wales match led the International Rugby Board to label his comments "unwarranted".

If the former Australia and Ireland back’s remarks were designed to put pressure on Kaplan’s compatriot Craig Joubert, in charge on Saturday, they appear to have succeeded only in rousing the IRB to extraordinary anger.

England fans must hope a more productive outlet for the team’s persecution complex will be found on the pitch.

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