England 16-20 Ireland, Twickenham, February 27
Irish spirit outweighs English promise
February 27, 2010
Jonny Wilkinson scraps with the Irish defence © Getty Images
Ireland wrecked England's Grand Slam dream with an impressive display that reminded the world they are still a major force on the international stage and that their hosts remain some way short of reclaiming that status.
They may have been second best by some way in their defeat to France in Paris a fortnight ago but they dished out a lesson of their own at a rain-swept Twickenham with their victory built on a rugged defensive display that easily shackled what creative energy England could muster. That bruising platform was laced with some superb finishing with winger Tommy Bowe underlining his own world-class reputation.
On paper this clash always looked close and so it proved with the contest see-sawing in the second half as both sides looked to preserve their Championship hopes and repair their somewhat battered reputations. Ireland's is now safely restored and they can target a final flourish that could yet bring them the Triple Crown. The fact that England were able to go toe-to-toe with the Irish despite being some way from the finished article bodes well for the future but the nagging concerns surrounding a lack of creativity and a cutting edge remain.
Long gone are the days when Ireland travelled across the Irish Sea on a damage limitation exercise - they come to England's HQ expecting to win and that confidence, borne out of an unstinting belief that they have the ability to get the job done, was the bedrock of this victory. England were always going to get very little change out of the Irish defence so they can take heart from the limited joy they had in open play. The truth is that we saw precious little of messrs Tait and Flutey when the stage cried out for a big performance but they were not helped by what was at times painfully slow ball.
Fly-half Jonny Wilkinson offered a reminder of his value to his side at the end of a week where he has been made the scapegoat for England's offensive ills. He came close to winning this game with a trademark drop goal but like England in general, he was far from his most ruthless best. However, he showed enough industry with ball in hand to silence those who question his ability to play on the front foot. He may not have been faultless with the boot or able to orchestrate his backline to the point of victory but that can be largely put down to the intensity of the Irish defensive patterns.
As Keith Earls crossed midway through the second period the storm clouds that had hovered above Twickenham all afternoon began to look a little more ominous for Martin Johnson. The build-up to that try featured a flashback to darker days that Johnson will be hoping was only a momentary lapse. Awarded a penalty on half way, tempestuous scrum-half Dany Care through his opposite number Tomas O'Leary to the floor in a rather drastic attempt to retrieve the ball and when the dust settled on the skirmish the decision was reversed and resulted in the Earls score. It was thought that such damaging examples of ill-discipline were a thing of England's past but it appears not.
England battled back into the contest to the point of victory before Bowe struck for the second and decisive time. But even then, Johnson's charges took up the cause once more and threw everything at the Irish in one last ferocious assault that was repelled by the defending Six Nations champions. England were not found wanting in terms of bravery, possession or territory but what they did lack was the precision displayed so effectively by the Irish.
And so England's bubble was burst. The hopes of a first Championship clean sweep since 2003 dashed. Those critics who scoffed at their results and declared that their performances were not worthy of a Grand Slam side have got their way. Perhaps now, free of that weight of expectation, we will see an England side full of vim and vigour.
No.8 Jamie Heaslip was once again the stand-out performer in Emerald Green and was ably supported by his back row colleagues Stephen Ferris and David Wallace. Fly-half Jonathan Sexton more than held his own on his first Twickenham appearance and was a key player in a varied approach that kept England guessing. And not even the loss of talismanic skipper Brian O'Driscoll to an unlucky bang to the head, courtesy of lock Paul O'Connell, could knock the Irish out of their stride.
In the weeks and months to come Ireland may be thankful for the lesson they received in Paris as it appears to have had a positive effect on all involved. It forced them to re-group and re-focus and they have emerged stronger as individuals and as a team. It is a goal that England can only aspire to - they are not yet the 'team' that Ireland are and this reverse may well prove to be their saviour too.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum.