Insatiable Ireland finish on a high
ESPN Australia's Gordon Bray
March 20, 2011
England's Matt Banahan is shackled by the Ireland defence during Saturday's showdown un Dublin © Getty Images
Chris Ashton Mirco Bergamasco Martin Castrogiovanni Jonathan Davies Thomas Domingo Toby Flood Richie Gray Dylan Hartley Sean O'Brien Brian O'Driscoll Tom Palmer Sergio Parisse Morgan Parra Chris Paterson Sam Warburton
On the final day of reckoning, just one of the six sides on show displayed the true courage to match its necessary conviction.
The biggest day of the Championship saw the tournament's 'nearly team' show the way with a bold performance that shredded England's Grand Slam aspirations.
Ireland's statement was made in the second minute. England's maul was turned over, their juggernaut scrum shunted and Jonathan Sexton's quick tap from the ensuing penalty finished deep in the shellshocked visitors' quarter.
A controversial selection at fly-half ahead of veteran Ronan O'Gara, Sexton quickly silenced the doubters. His attacking mindset set the tone for Ireland's finest performance in recent memory. Some suggested Ireland did not have the necessary ensemble skills to execute a high-paced southern hemisphere approach. Hogwash!
With Keith Earls switched to fullback and Andrew Trimble re-instated on the wing, Ireland paraded their most potent backline of the tournament. In a record equalling 46th Test together, Brian O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy oozed class in attack and defence. Halves Eoin Reddan and Sexton relished the quick front-foot ball from their inspired pack ensuring little respite for England.
D'Arcy's superb performance underlined the difference in coaching philosophies of Declan Kidney and French mentor Marc Lievremont who has adopted a revolving door policy with his swag of centre combinations. The Irish veteran had a handling shocker against Italy and his missed tackle on Aurelien Rougerie in round two at Lansdowne Road was a match turner. Yet Kidney, no doubt with the urging of assistant Alan Gaffney, kept the faith.
To a man, the entire Irish forward pack was on a higher mental and physical level. The workrate of the tight forwards was insatiable while the back-row was simply sensational. Jamie Heaslip outpaced and outplayed Nick Easter. Sean O'Brien's all-action display confirmed his standing as one of the players of the tournament while David Wallace was at the heart of everything Ireland attempted across the field.
The spectre of this perilous final showdown in Dublin was impregnated in England's subconscious before the tournament began. They played and labored on the weekend like a team distracted. O'Driscoll pointed to England's nerves in the build-up. That seed germinated from the opening whistle.
But England deserved their Championship. By overturning recent history in the opener at Millennium Stadium, they took advantage of a favourable draw and importantly pulverized Italy by 46 points at Twickenham. This latest knock-out loss should serve them well as they reassess their shortcomings. On that score, a more creative, attacking centre-pairing must be top of the list.
France adopted a win-at-all-costs approach against Wales, grinding out their most disciplined performance of the tournament. However, the scars of recent upheavals surely remain.
The Welsh were a huge disappointment. Badly exposed at the breakdown when Sam Warburton departed with injury, Wales adopted a no-frills approach but lacked urgency. Their one dimensional game plan seemed pre-determined, regardless of the result from Dublin in the preceding game.
A shot at the Championship with a 27 point margin against an out-of-sorts French team was not entirely out of the question. But it needed a high energy Irish mindset. Something Wales seem incapable of at present.
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