Ireland 6-12 England, February 10, 2013
Composure in the heat of the battle
Graham Jenkins at the Aviva Stadium
February 10, 2013
England's Chris Robshaw celebrates at the full-time whistle © PA Photos
England sounded out a formidable warning to their Six Nations rivals with a performance of outstanding maturity that leaves them on course for a rare Grand Slam.
This game represented a significant hurdle for a side that had earned rave reviews for their back-to-back victories over world champions New Zealand and Scotland - but this was an altogether different kind of test. Ireland had Grand Slam aspirations of their own and England had not tasted victory on a Six Nations visit to Dublin since 2003. The elements also threatened to burst England's bubble with the near perfect playing conditions that suited their ambition against the All Blacks and Scots replaced by the foulest of days in the Irish capital with the cold, wet and windy conditions conspiring to ruin the game as a spectacle.
But as is fast becoming the way with this tactically astute England side, they simply rose to the challenge laid before them and in doing so recorded arguably the most significant win of Stuart Lancaster's tenure. This game was not won in the confines of their Twickenham HQ but in the cauldron that was the Aviva Stadium where England are assured of nothing but a hostile welcome both on and off the field. A side that we are constantly reminded are relatively short on big match experience belied that perceived lack of wisdom by mastering the conditions and showing up an Ireland side that boasts Test centurions but were left embarrassed by their shortcomings.
As crowd-pleasing and refreshing England's desire to play an expansive game, it is the steely determination that was evident in this game that will serve them better in the long run. The players' willingness to dig deep for each other was further evidence of the enviable team spirit that Lancaster has nurtured with a herculean defensive effort - with captain Chris Robshaw at its heart - soaking up the best that Ireland had to offer from the first whistle to the last.
This insatiable desire was clear to behold following the sin-binning of flanker James Haskell whose painfully careless efforts to clamber out of a ruck saw him get his marching orders - maybe a little harshly. It is the sort of act that would have had his predecessor Martin Johnson self-harming up in the stand in frustration but Lancaster knows his England are made of sterner stuff and so they proved. They rallied in adversity and went on to outscore their rivals 6-3 in Haskell's absence thanks largely to a steadfast refusal to let a game they worked so hard to stay in slip from their grasp. It also helped that they have a peerless playmaker in Owen Farrell who competitive spirit and right boot ensured England took another major step towards their ultimate goal of becoming the world's best side.
Farrell's own star is rising just as fast despite the best attempts of an Irish side fully aware of his power and influence. Ireland flanker Sean O'Brien set him flying with a late challenge with just two minutes on the clock and the usually resilient Farrell was forced to take a knee and regain the air that had just been knocked out of him. Any hope that the target of their not-so-welcome affection would disappear into his shell like any normal 21-year-old offered such a bone-shaking welcome would do was unfounded -if you didn't know by now, Farrell is no normal talent. He dusted himself off and set about the task in hand - only with more determination that when he started.
Ireland's failure to deal with the conditions was as alarming as England's ability to not only cope but thrive was stunning. Technical errors on such a horrible day as this was are understandable but the amount of handling errors that the Irish served up was simply not acceptable and will make for some painful review session in the coming days. Time and time again their notable endeavour took them to within striking range only for their handling to be found wanting. Not even experienced heads such as captain Jamie Heaslip and veteran centre Brian O'Driscoll were immune to the slippery ball syndrome and it is hoped the latter handles his newborn baby daughter Sadie with a little more aplomb.
The hosts were not helped by injuries to key personnel with the Simon Zebo-mania brought to an abrupt halt with only ten minutes on the clock but it was the loss of fly-half Jonathan Sexton on the half hour mark that proved more costly with replacement Ronan O'Gara unable to rescue the situation. Both Zebo and Sexton look set for a spell on the sidelines and will most likely be joined by prop Cian Healy, who can expect a citing for at least one of his acts of thuggery in a brutal opening period. His apparent stamp on the leg of England prop Dan Cole was ugly and illegal and will tarnish what has been superb season for the loose-head, who offered at least one other moment of madness with a swinging arm aimed at Robshaw.
But not even that could spoil what was an historic day for the England skipper and his side. The players celebrated with what energy they had left and there was even some mild jubilation from a coaching team so often quick to re-focus on the next challenge. That can wait for a night at least with the morning set to bring with it the realisation that the Six Nations glory and Grand Slam are within their grasp.
Ireland watch on as Owen Farrell kicks for the posts © PA Photos
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Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.