Six Nations

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England v Ireland, Twickenham, February 27
England revival faces stiff Irish test
Graham Jenkins
February 25, 2010
England fly-half Jonny Wilkinson passes during training at Pennyhill Park Hotel, Bagshot, February 23, 2010
Fly-half Jonny Wilkinson has been singled out for criticism despite England's unbeated start to the Championship © Getty Images

England resume their quest for a Six Nations Grand Slam on Saturday with Ireland set to provide a true test of their title credentials.

Martin Johnson's men are unbeaten in this year's Championship following hard-fought victories over Wales and Italy but have had to weather a near-constant barrage of criticism from those troubled by the manner in which they achieved those wins. Similarly, Declan Kidney's Ireland failed to impress in beating Italy in their opener at Croke Park and saw their hopes of back-to-back Grand Slams crushed by a clinical France in Paris a fortnight ago. But their Championship and Triple Crown hopes remain alive as they return to England's HQ for a mouth-watering showdown set to make or break their season.

Both sides have struggled to conjure their best form so far this year with only brief glimpses of the expansive game we have come to expect from Ireland and which we have been promised by England. Ireland's impressive 12-game winning run came to a shuddering halt last time out but they orchestrated their own downfall with a yellow card for prop Cian Healy and a series of uncharacteristic defensive lapses. England may have solved their own indiscipline problems, that were clearly evident in the corresponding fixture last year, but they are some way from a clean bill of health with a propensity for kicking the ball away and a lack of a cutting edge continuing to blight their game.

Despite the growing concern over England's lack of ideas and direction, Johnson has handed his players a vote of confidence by retaining the same side that laboured to victory against Italy. Fly-half Jonny Wilkinson, blamed by many for England's impotence, keeps his place at No.10 in bold move from Johnson, who refuses to buckle under growing pressure to opt for a more dynamic playmaker. Johnson's loyalty is admirable but he needs his former team-mate to deliver a big performance in return. Wilkinson's boot has proved invaluable over the last decade or so and he has been rightly lauded but just as it is wrong to pinpoint one player in a winning team it is unfair to burden just one when the team struggles to maintain those high standards.

The creative energies of scrum-half Danny Care, centres Riki Flutey and Mathew Tait and what on paper is a formidable back three of Delon Armitage, Mark Cueto and Ugo Monye must step up and rescue their fly-half as he has done for them on numerous occasions. Wilkinson has never had the pace to be the dazzling line-breaker people now expect him to be but he still possesses the pass and the brain to allow others to do so.

If Wilkinson and Co fail to settle into a crowd-pleasing rhythm, they are in danger of being over-shadowed by one of the rising stars of the game in Ireland fly-half Jonathan Sexton. The 24-year-old returns to the anchor the Irish backline in the wake of the lesson dished out by the French with veteran Ronan O'Gara making way. The Leinster fly-half has been charged with re-igniting the Irish back division and he has already shown in his brief international career, and more regularly with his province, that he is more than capable of providing that spark. And he has some willing cohorts in the likes of Tommy Bowe and Keith Earls while captain Brian O'Driscoll will be keen to bounce back from a rare off day in Paris where his much-hyped showdown with France's Mathieu Bastareaud went unanimously the way of the French youngster.

An intriguing battle awaits at the breakdown with England's James Haskell, Lewis Moody and Nick Easter set to go head-to-head with their Irish counterparts Stephen Ferris, David Wallace and Jamie Heaslip. Class exudes on both sides with perhaps referee Mark Lawrence set to be the key player if reports are to be believed. Wallabies coach Robbie Deans revealed this week that South African Lawrence and his compatriot Jonathan Kaplan have been 'instructed' to adhere to the strict directive issued by SANZAR at the beginning of the year aimed at, among other things, tidying up the breakdown in the Super 14. That move has resulted in a glut of tries in the opening two rounds of the southern hemisphere's premier competition and means all eyes will be on Cardiff on Friday night where Kaplan will provide a marker. Johnson has expressed his concerns in the build up to the clash which will no doubt be magnified should his side suffer at the hands of Lawrence and his whistle.

While England opt for consistency in terms of selection, Ireland have been forced into changes with hooker Jerry Flannery serving a six week ban for his ill-advised lunge at French winger Alexis Palisson. Rory Best has been drafted into the front row while Geordan Murphy returns to the international stage in the place of injured fullback Rob Kearney. Elsewhere, veteran tight-head John Hayes will become the first player to accrue a century of Ireland caps with a host of his countrymen queuing up to join him in the coming months.

Ireland's defence was found wanting in Paris where they were bullied by a dominant French side who found it too easy to punch holes in the emerald green wall. Although England do not appear to pose the same level of threat they have the potential to capitalise on any shortcomings.

The two sides look evenly matched on paper and with so much at stake a nerve-shredding encounter is on the cards with the boot threatening to dominate. Glory awaits the side bold enough to go looking for the win with home advantage set to weigh in England's favour. The Six Nations remains a results business and a win is a win - but at what cost?

England: D Armitage (London Irish); M Cueto (Sale Sharks), M Tait (Sale Sharks), R Flutey (Brive), U Monye (Harlequins); J Wilkinson (Toulon), D Care (Harlequins); T Payne (Wasps), D Hartley (Northampton), D Cole (Leicester), S Shaw (Wasps), S Borthwick (Saracens, captain), J Haskell (Stade Francais), L Moody (Leicester), N Easter (Harlequins)

Replacements: L Mears (Bath), D Wilson (Bath), L Deacon (Leicester), J Worsley (Wasps), P Hodgson (London Irish), T Flood (Leicester), B Foden (Northampton)

Ireland: G Murphy (Leicester), T Bowe (Ospreys), B O'Driscoll (Leinster) capt, G D'Arcy (Leinster), K Earls (Munster), J Sexton (Leinster), T O'Leary (Munster), C Healy (Leinster), Rory Best (Ulster), J Hayes (Munster), D O'Callaghan (Munster), P O'Connell (Munster), S Ferris (Ulster), D Wallace (Munster), J Heaslip (Leinster)

Replacements: S Cronin (Connacht), T Buckley (Munster), L Cullen (Leinster), S Jennings (Leinster), E Reddan (Leinster), R O'Gara (Munster), A Trimble (Ulster)

Referee: Mark Lawrence (SA)

Assistant referess: Christophe Berdos (Fra), David Changleng (Sco)
Television Match Officials: Carlo Damasco (Ita)

Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum.
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