It would be a duller winter if our English foe didn't turn up
Nothing has changed. This weekend, England return to Dublin. One of the footnotes of the English team selection saw David Strettle ditched from the bench in order to accommodate Manu Tuilagi. Those of us who were in Croke Park in 2007 when Ireland reaped revenge for Just About Anything The English Ever Did To Us might remember Strettle as the most valiant performer on a sorry afternoon for the men in white. The daylight was murky and England were a mess but Strettle looked electrifying on the wing any time he got the ball.
He was one to watch. But as with Iain Balshaw, it never quite happened for Strettle in the England shirt. Their disastrous World Cup campaign and Johnson’s subsequent resignation as manager have led to a hasty and promising assignment to build a new team. And so Stuart Lancaster has put together an English team of young bruisers infused with the very ruddy self-belief which defined them during Johnson’s days of leading them on the field.
At some stage tomorrow, Dylan Hartley will come rumbling on from the England replacements bench. The big English hooker literally got stuck into the Irish last year when he decided to bite Stephen Ferris on the finger. (In boxing, the dark art, Mike Tyson’s biting incident remains one of the most notorious incidents in the sport. In rugby, it earns a stern talking-to from the referee and an eight-week ban and then all is forgotten.)
Not content with that, Hartley also decked Rory Best last December. Maybe it’s an Ulster thing. Either way, Hartley wasn’t exactly repentant when asked about it this week and is expecting a hot reception in Lansdowne Road.
Hartley is simply filling in an age-old role when it comes to Ireland-England games. Billy Beaumont, Lawrence Dallaglio (cos he could have played for us), Kyran Bracken (ditto), Gareth Chilcott, Neil Back, Will Carling, Brian Moore . . . the list of sons of the English soil who could get a rise out of the Irish is endless.
This is a bizarre and mixed-up time to be Irish. This is a time when re-arranging a multi-billion debt to Europe is regarded as a triumph for the nation, when it is hard to know what to think about anything.
So when England and Ireland meet to play rugby, you are in good hands. The rules never change. The feelings never change. Beating England at rugby always makes the Irish feel better about life and when that happens, the English take it on the chin.
As John Pullin unforgettably observed in the dark days of 1973, when both the Scots and Welsh declined to play in Dublin because of the Troubles: “We may not be much good but at least we turn up.”
And it would be a duller winter without them.