/ 23 February 2007

Rugby and history collide at Croke Park

In rugby terms, the Six Nations match that takes place in Dublin on Saturday is all about the short-term future: the next four weeks that will decide this season’s tournament and the eight months that will determine the destiny of this year’s World Cup.

But when it comes to Ireland and England clashes, it has always been hard to ignore the past, and that will be the case when the strains of God Save the Queen echo around Croke Park shortly before 5.30pm local time.

The history of 82 500-capacity arena that was, until France played the first rugby union international here two weeks ago, an exclusive citadel for Ireland’s traditional sports, is rich in the folklore of hurling and Gaelic football.

But it is also scarred by the events of November 19 1920, the day when 13 Irish citizens were shot dead by British paramilitaries in the stadium in reprisal for the IRA’s assassination of British intelligence officers earlier the same day.

At least one protest has been scheduled by a Republican fringe group, but Ireland’s coach, Eddie O’Sullivan, is confident that the home supporters will, in the main, concentrate on providing positive support for a team that has beaten the English in their last three meetings.

”When they run on to the pitch, the players want the roof to come off the stadium and a massive surge of energy that they can feed off,” O’Sullivan said. ”They don’t want any negativity.”

Still smarting at a 20-17 defeat to France, the Irish welcome back talismanic captain Brian O’Driscoll for a match that O’Sullivan understandably regards as ”pivotal” to his squad’s year.

Failure on Saturday will mean Ireland can forget about salvaging anything from a campaign that began with high hopes of a Grand Slam, which would allow them to surf a wave of self-belief all the way to the World Cup.

The stakes are equally high for England.

Victory will put real meat into the revival script that Brian Ashton has been attempting to draft since replacing Andy Robinson as head coach of the world champions.

But defeat on the back of a stuttering display against Italy two weeks ago will inevitably undo the optimism generated by the sight of Jonny Wilkinson marking his first international since the 2003 World Cup final by putting Scotland to the sword in England’s opening match.

Wilkinson and company received a briefing on Croke Park’s history earlier this week, but their preparation in playing terms has been far less ideal.

While Ireland have had two weeks to digest the lessons of the last-gasp defeat to France, which blew away their Grand Slam aspirations, England have had their preparations curtailed by club commitments.

Head coach Brian Ashton’s fine-tuning could only began in earnest on Wednesday, two days of rest and recuperation having been imposed after half his starting XV were obliged to turn out for their clubs last the weekend.

Ironically it was once training began in earnest that Jason Robinson, who scored three of England’s five tries in their first two matches, suffered a neck injury that ruled him out of Saturday’s encounter.

Uncapped Harlequins wing David Strettle (23) was drafted in to replace Robinson.

On the eve of the match, a tight right hamstring was also threatening to rule out Wilkinson. World Cup winner Mike Catt travelled with the squad as cover for the star flyhalf, although it is more likely that Wilkinson’s Newcastle teammate Toby Flood will be promoted from the bench if necessary.

Ireland have no such worries. Scrumhalf Peter Stringer passed a fitness test on the hand he fractured in their opening win over Wales, and O’Driscoll is determined that a landmark day will end in celebration for the home side.

”We really don’t want the inaugural year of playing in Croke Park to end with two games, two losses,” the Irish captain said. — Sapa-AFP