By Tim Glover Rugunion Correspondent
The Independent on Sunday (London, England)
Had Vincent Clerc been from Tipperary rather than Toulouse he would be an all-Ireland hero instead of the biggest spoilsport in the Six Nations. The Clerc and dagger try that shattered Ireland in the dying moments at Croke Park has given the championship an overwhelming French accent.
Only France and England enter round three undefeated, but that is likely to change on Saturday. England, on cloud nine after their euphoric victory over Scotland and under a cloud following a performance devoid of inspiration against Italy, do not look as if they have the wherewithal to withstand the Irish challenge in Dublin.
Brian Ashton makes a couple of changes to the side who struggled against the Italians, Joe Worsley returning to the back row in place of Nick Easter and Olly Morgan replacing the re-injured Iain Balshaw at fullback. No prizes for guessing that young Morgan will be bombarded with the garryowen by Ronan O'Gara before the band has reached the touchline.
Ashton's dramatic recall of Jonny Wilkinson and Jason Robinson has resulted in the two World Cup winners scoring 57 of England's 62 points to date, a monopoly broken only by Magnus Lund's try against Scotland. The reappearance on the left wing of Robinson, who has three tries, has been an unqualified success; the same cannot be said of Wilkinson, despite the fact that his goal-kicking has been world-class, he has already amassed 42 points and he is still in one piece. The stand-off kicked often and poorly out of hand against the Italians, who were allowed to enjoy la dolce vita in the second half, which they won 7-6. If Wilkinson and Andy Farrell cannot forge a decent working relationship against Italy at Twickenham, they are not going to do so against Brian O'Driscoll and Co at Croke Park.
The pack is another worry. AshtonsaidtheAzzurriforwards took a stranglehold on the game, but this is Italy. Yes, they were gutsy, committed and a handful - this is Test rugby - but the fact remains that they are a team of losers, however honourable, on an annual basis. Such is the state of their semi-professional club game that they were born with a wooden spoon in their mouth. The easiest part of the Six Nations is over for England, who have been sidetracked once again by the club-country issue. Wilkinson was given the weekend off by Newcastle, who are at Bristol today, and the club were at pains to point out that this was not a Pavlovian response to the wish expressed by Rob Andrew, the Rugby Football Union's elite rugby director, that the elite would be stood down from the Guinness Premiership.
Some players have, some have not, but Newcastle say Wilkinson has not been rested. "Jonny is not fit to play and that's a joint decision," John Fletcher, New-castle's coach, said. "He's taken a lot of bumps and bruises and hasn't trained with the team. He wouldn't have played for anyone this weekend. We're 10th in the league and we're playing one of the top teams. I'd have to be a stark raving lunatic to go into such a game without one of the best players in the world." Ladbrokes go 8-1 that Wilkinson will not start against Ireland.
England are worried about injuries, ditto the clubs when their players wear the Red Rose. Sale have been lacerated by injuries to key players who were crocked while playing Test rugby. It is worth recalling that the preparation for the Italy game was regarded by one and all as top-notch, but it still resulted in a drab performance. No excuses there. At a briefing last week the RFU said there had been "seismic shifts" between the two protagonists, and that the clubs "now see the need to have joint management of the players". It will probably only be settled by a golden handshake, and the RFU say they are recovering from the initial shock caused by the amount of compensation being sought by the clubs.
Ireland have no such political undercurrents, but Clerc's brilliant finish ended their dream of a Slam, maybe the championship - Rule No 1 is you have to win at home - although a Triple Crown is still on offer. …