26 May, 20:35
Interim Ireland head coach Les Kiss has confirmed that back rower Peter O'Mahony will captain the squad for the summer tour to North America, following Rory Best's call-up to the British & Irish Lions squad.
Ten years have passed since the phone call. Lawrence, he said, Noel Murphy here, chairman of the Irish selectors. We heard you like a few pints of the black stuff and were wondering if you'd like to wear the green shirt of Ireland.
And I have to say, I liked the approach. A lot of Irish people can't do anything without a touch of humour, and I had a bit of craic with Noel.
It was 1994, and although I had played for England at different levels, I wasn't getting into the senior squad. It was a time when Dean Richards was still around, Ben Clarke, Tim Rodber, Steve Ojomoh, Neil Back. There were a lot of good backrow forwards around, and if you didn't play for Bath, it was hard to break into the team.
So when Noel called, I was flattered. My mother was from a very Irish background, and I considered myself half-Irish. It was something I was going to consider. Give us a couple of days to think about it, I said to Noel. That very day England's coach, Jack Rowell, telephoned and invited me to go on tour with England to South Africa in the summer of that year.
Maybe I wouldn't have accepted Ireland's offer, because I had a huge ambition to play for England, but who knows? I was young, I was in a hurry and I did feel part-Irish. And in a curious way, I've had a different attitude towards playing Ireland than a lot of other countries. I just don't see there's that much animosity there. And I don't think this is a personal thing, it's how the England team as a whole sees it.
I'm not sure this feeling is reciprocated from the other side, and on Saturday the Ireland team will probably want to kick the living daylights out of us. Matches against Ireland are invariably tough. When we played them at underage level, they were always very strong. I particularly remember games for England A in Donnybrook on the Friday evening before the Saturday international. They were tough.
We've had bad days and good days. I was a spectator at Twickenham when Simon Geoghegan scored that try to beat us, and a television pundit when Keith Wood scored an important try in Dublin three years ago. But we've had plenty of good days too. Last season's Grand Slam victory in Dublin was important because questions were being asked. When were we going to close the deal? Were we able to deal with the pressure? So that day we delivered an emphatic statement that stood us in good stead for the rest of the year. You go to a hostile environment like Lansdowne Road, you answer the questions, and you don't leave with just a title. There is also the credibility and the confidence you come away with. We ended up winning that game by a big score, but it never felt like that.
At the final whistle, you looked up at the scoreboard and thought, No, that doesn't reflect the Test match we've just played. It was harder than that. And I expect next weekend's game to be a terrific match.
We've won our two Six Nations matches and the bounty on the team's head has gone up. Ireland badly want to be the ones to knock us, and given their performance against Wales, they will not lack confidence.
But I don't sense that we are waiting to be beaten. People wonder how we can motivate ourselves after winning the World Cup. That's not difficult. There is always a level higher than the one you're on, and that's where we're trying to go. I have the deepest respect for what we did in Australia, but the World Cup was won more through the strength of the squad's character than the brilliance of our form.
I don't feel we fulfilled our potential in Australia. The results were good, we did what we had to win, and in a one-off competition, you can't ask for more. But now we can, and I believe there is a lot more to come from England. It's a delicate balance because while you are trying to tap into that extra potential in the team, you must ensure you keep winning.
We would like to have played more attractive rugby in Scotland and scored better tries, but this isn't an exact science. Tries come about in different ways, and we're not going to knock ourselves because three of our four tries last weekend came from intense pressure on the Scottish kickers. Doesn't that show that our desire and our work ethic have not been diminished by winning the World Cup?
This is a bit of a hobby horse of mine. For years and years, when the Celtic countries played England, everybody talked about their passion and their intensity, as if that was one area where they would have an advantage. With all due respect, passion and intensity are qualities I expect from our team. If you don't play with that intensity and passion, what are you doing on the international team? And let's not forget that this is our first proper Test at Twickenham for some time. It is almost a year since I played a Test at the ground, and I have missed playing there. A lot of our fans couldn't get to Sydney in November, and for them the Ireland match will be a special occasion. I expect the team will want to ensure the game matches the occasion. We expect our third performance in this campaign to be the best so far. The games in Rome and Edinburgh are bound to have brought more cohesion and better understanding between the guys who have come into the team and those who were there before. And in terms of our two performances so far, it is significant that both of those matches were away from home; just as it wasn't coincidental that Ireland's fine performance against the Welsh came at Lansdowne Road.
See it from my point of view. I have been on the road for almost six weeks; I've played in Perpignan, Bath, Rome and at Murrayfield, and I just can't wait to be back at Twickenham. I know the rest of the lads feel the same, and the fact that Ireland will come with fierce determination, well, that's fine. That's how it should be in international rugby.
But I hope that when the game is over, the camaraderie that has existed between the two teams carries on. When we won the Grand Slam in Dublin last year, most of us ended up in the same place, and the majority of the evening was spent in each other's company. In fairness, I have never had a bad night in Dublin, and I don't see that just because everything is so professional now, we have to give up some of the game's best traditions.
There were seven Irish guys on the 2001 Lions, and a lot of friendships were formed. I've got to know fellows like Brian O'Driscoll, Ronan O'Gara and Malcolm O'Kelly. But with me it goes back longer than that. There have been some long evenings with Mick Galwey and The Claw, Peter Clohessy. When I was a young flanker starting out, Fergus Slattery was one of the guys I aspired to be like.
And, by the way, Noel Murphy was right. I do like a few pints of the black stuff. Professional rugby has, I suppose, put the brakes on that. But there will be a time, when the boots are nailed to the wall, that I'll be at some game involving Munster at Thomond Park. When it's over, we will retire to The Claw's pub, the Sin Bin, and even as an Englishman I'll be welcomed. Without feeling any guilt, I'll be able to have those few pints.
At that moment, it will feel as though I have my life back.