Croke tensions begin to cloud horizon

Ireland coach Eddie O’Sullivan has appealed for calm in an attempt to defuse mounting tension ahead of England’s Croke Park debut on Saturday.

An electric atmosphere awaits England at the Gaelic Athletic Association-owned venue with debate raging over what reception their anthem “God Save the Queen” will receive.

The ground is steeped in history from the conflict between the two nations and provided the setting for ‘Bloody Sunday’ in 1920 when 14 civilians were killed by British soldiers.

To add to the significance, Hill 16, the stadium’s only terrace, was built from the rubble of O’Connell Street after it had been bombed by the British during the Easter Rising.

Many GAA members still object to the suspension of ‘Rule 42’, which prevents the staging of so-called ‘foreign’ games at Croke Park, and will oppose any extension to the year-long agreement that enables rugby and football to be played at the venue.

But Ireland coach O’Sullivan is confident England’s arrival will be greeted with respect and requested a key moment in Irish sporting history is not over-hyped.

“It’s understandable that people will have issues in principle with what will happen on Saturday and they have a right to have those issues,” he said.

“It’s understandable they want to express them. That’s fine and healthy. It’s free speech.

“But if I was to have a dig at anyone, it’s at the media for gleefully fanning the flames – and not just the rugby media.

“With regards to the anthems, they have always been respected at Lansdowne Road. Our anthem has been respected wherever we’ve gone, and we hope that will be reciprocated.

“God Save the Queen was respected the last time it was played at Croke Park, at the Special Olympics three years ago.

“I expect it will be the same on Saturday. The one thing we can say about Irish sports fans is they’re the best in the world.

“They’re renowned for their capacity to embrace and be positive.”

But O’Sullivan refused to play down the importance of Saturday’s encounter with the outcome shaping the rivals’ Six Nations title aspirations.

“The Triple Crown is still alive and we could still win the championship. The Grand Slam has definitely gone, but there’s no point dwelling on that,” he said.

“It’s a pivotal game in our championship. If we win we’re right back in it. If we lose, our championship is dead in the water and we’ll be fighting for a spot down the table.

“England also want to make it three out of three to keep them in the title race.”

Brian O’Driscoll has been restored to the starting line-up after missing the 20-17 defeat by France with a hamstring strain.

The Leinster centre takes over the captaincy from Paul O’Connell with Shane Horgan switching to the right wing and Geordan Murphy dropping out of the squad.

Peter Stringer is still struggling with the fractured hand that forced him to miss the match against France, so Ireland have left the scrum-half berth open.

Stringer will be given until later in the week to prove his fitness with Isaac Boss ready to deputise once again should the Munster veteran fail to make it.

“The situation with Peter is encouraging at the moment,” said O’Sullivan.

“His progress slowed down this week but he had a workout yesterday and there has been no adverse reaction to it so far.

“We’ll give it another 48 hours and then take another look at the situation,” O’Sullivan added. “He didn’t do any contact work, just fitness work and passing.”

He said Murphy had paid the price for his indifferent form with Andrew Trimble edging a narrow call to win a place on the bench.

“The exclusion of Geordan will be an issue for some because he’s been an ever-present in this side,” he said.

“But with Brian back and Shane on the wing it was a scramble for the utility position on

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