What now for England?
March 20, 2011
England pose with the Six Nations silverware following Wales' failure to overhaul them at the top of the table © 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
Don't be fooled by the smiles. The Six Nations silverware only provided temporary relief from the dark cloud that descended upon England on Saturday night.
They may have ended an eight-year title drought but Ireland's victory at Lansdowne Road ensured that any celebrations were short-lived. The Grand Slam has become the benchmark in recent years, with seven clean sweeps since the competition was expanded at the turn of the century, and England's failure to complete the job will become the story of this Championship.
It is a feeling that Martin Johnson is all too familiar with, having played in the England side that was denied in such dramatic fashion by Wales at Wembley in 1999. But the England coach will waste little time in dwelling on what might have been, with the emphatic nature of Ireland's victory a more pressing concern.
A city centre billboard featuring a rose shorn of its petals rallied the home support and it proved to be prophetic as England wilted in the heat of battle. Johnson offered no excuses because there were none available to him - his side had been well beaten by an Irish side that may well wonder why they do not have another Slam to their name. They also suddenly appear to be the northern hemisphere side most likely to worry their southern rivals come the Rugby World Cup.
England's apparent fragility when it gets tough could well scupper any hopes they have of making an impression in New Zealand in a few months time. New Zealand and South Africa both outmuscled England in the November internationals and even Samoa fired a warning across their bow. While England weathered the storm offered by the rest of their Six Nations rivals those sides could not muster the intensity that a resurgent Ireland produced. It carried them past England and onto a whole new level.
England quite clearly have the physical attributes to compete with the world's best but that proved not to be enough against a insatiable Ireland side. The back-row battle, although it was not much of a contest, underlined this fact. Tom Wood, James Haskell and Nick Easter had been among England's star performers in this year's Championship, until they ran into Ireland's Sean O'Brien, David Wallace and Jamie Heaslip.
The Irish back-row ran amok, stealing ball and felling attackers at every turn. In the process they denied their English counterparts any kind of foothold in the game. The midfield battle was equally one-sided with the record-equalling partnership of Brian O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy more than a match for Shontayne Hape and Matt Banahan, who toiled but lacked a creative spark. The midfield conundrum continues to stump the England management.
This disparity in performance hints at another potential shortfall in terms of mental toughness. England lacked the ability to break Ireland's stranglehold on the game, to change things up, and the resulting pressure led to an inevitable breaking point. The ability to make the right decisions at the right time is always key and even more so in the high-pressure environment of a Grand Slam decider. It was another area where England showed frailty.
The guilty party on this front was scrum-half Ben Youngs, who by his own honest assessment played like an "idiot". The odd misplaced kick or pass could perhaps be forgiven but the stupidity is not acceptable. He may well have been unlucky to have received a yellow card for throwing the ball away but that does not excuse his costly indiscipline that triggered flashbacks to the 'yellow fever' that plagued the early stages of Johnson's tenure.
England manager Martin Johnson reflects on his side's defeat to Ireland in Dublin © Getty Images
Youngs' indiscretion can perhaps be put down to his inexperience with the Tigers' No.9 barely into double figures when it comes to Test caps. The likes of fullback Ben Foden, winger Chris Ashton, centre Matt Banahan, props Alex Corbisiero and Dan Cole and flanker Tom Wood are also noticeably light on Test match miles and it turned out to be too much of a void for the likes of Easter and fly-half Toby Flood to fill.
Johnson has always boasted that has played down the role of the captain, safe in the thought that his squad was not short of leaders, but that did not appear to be the case in the futuristic surrounds of Ireland's new home. Previous captains Lewis Moody and Mike Tindall watched helplessly from the sidelines as their side was mercilessly pulverised into submission.
Easter was unable to galvanise his troops and while their increased efforts brought some reward in the second-half they were unable to change the course of the game. Not even the introduction of the ever-reliable Jonny Wilkinson could swing the momentum England's way. Ireland were not in a generous mood.
The key to success at the World Cup is the ability to deliver under pressure so England would appear to have a significant problem, bearing in mind that Ireland are not expected to be leading the chase for the sport's biggest prize.
But while this defeat will rob them of precious momentum there are many positives from their campaign. Lessons have been taken on board from the autumn internationals and England had the beating of all but one of their northern hemisphere rivals. They played with confidence and variety in all aspects of the game before coming unstuck against the Irish. They also blooded fresh talent in the form of Wood and Corbisiero and excelled without the likes of Moody, Courtney Lawes and Tom Croft, which points to enviable strength in depth.
In truth, they are not as good as we thought and may have benefited from the shortcomings of their opponents, and a Championship lacking in high quality rugby. But they have come a long way in a year and this 'scar', as Johnson labelled it, will serve them well down the line. The much-needed experience will also come in time but perhaps not soon enough propel them to World Cup glory.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.