My dreams of late (or were they nightmares?) have been filled with visions of an England Grand Slam leading into a World Cup. “Not again”, I thought. I need not have worried. I should have asked my old friends Allan Gaffney and Les Kiss. They could have set my mind at rest. As members of Ireland’s coaching team, I’m sure they had it completely under control all of the time.
That’s certainly the way it looked at Lansdowne Road yesterday, as Ireland made a mockery of England’s favourites’ tag to convincingly win the match 24–8. Indeed, the Ireland team were so dominant that by the half-time break, it looked as though England would need a miracle to pull back from the hosts’ 17–3 lead.
Perhaps the most important ingredient of success is enthusiasm: it makes most things possible. Ireland had it in bucketloads! It gave them their positive attitude, which was clearly evident from the kick-off. In the first minute, Ireland drove the England scrum backwards and got the penalty. Sexton took the tap and put the visitors immediately on the defensive.
England, on the other hand, were strangely negative, and when Sexton found space in behind the England line — this was to be the first of many such explorations — they were off-side from the lineout. When Nick Easter enquired of the referee which of his backs was adjudged off-side, he was informed by Bryce Lawrence “All of them!” Following Sexton’s successful penalty conversion, they were well off-side at the restart. There was no focus on a quality performance here.
This negativity pervaded England’s total performance, until pride finally drew a rear-guard last ten minutes from them. By then, of course, the game had been lost and the pressure of a beckoning Grand Slam had been lifted from their shoulders. Even the youthful Ben Youngs, usually a bundle of positive action, was guilty of negativity. The first was when he cynically knocked the ball from the hands of his opposite number, when Reddin was shaping to feed the scrum! What’s that all about? In the 35th minute, he was at it again and was yellow carded for preventing a possible Ireland quick throw by tossing the ball away — into the grandstand. Youngs is a much better player than such actions would suggest, but pressure can have strange effects.
There were high tackles, off-sides in front of the kick, not releasing the ball-carrier, lying over the tackle… you name the offence and England were guilty of it, and these infringements kept them on the back foot. Especially so when Johnny Sexton, exuding enthusiasm, was ready to snatch the slightest opportunity. He took the quick tap again when England were off-side and took play well in behind their defensive line. From the quick recycle, it was Tommy Bowe who found space with England short of numbers and neatly stepped inside Ben Foden to confirm Ireland’s superiority. The toll could have been much more as Ireland crossed twice more before the break, only to be recalled (correctly) for forward passes.
I’ve said it before — a couple of hundred times or more, and I’m getting sick of having to say it — that for a quality rugby performance you need two things. First, you need to apply committed pressure with numbers at the tackle contest, both in attack and defence; and second, you need to realign, with urgency, both the attacking line and the defensive line. (In fact, realignment of the attacking line has all but disappeared from the game, except when New Zealand teams are playing.) Ireland recognised the importance of these simple principles and gave both the England attack and defence a torrid time. Add some reasonable set plays and you can put together a pretty good game of rugby. Ireland certainly managed it.
The words that came to my mind in an assessment of the Ireland performance were “fierce” and “relentless”, and all of the Ireland players played their part. This was surely the best team that Ireland have fielded in this year’s Internationals. Earls gave loads more than Fitzgerald ever offered at full back; the injuries to Kearney and Murphy proved significant for this international season. Trimble was all pace and power and complemented the outstanding Tommy Bowe to give threats on both sides of the pitch.
Sexton offers much more than O’Gara, for all of O’Gara’s control, and he was adjudged the Man of the Match. There were a couple of others who could easily have won that accolade — the ageless Brian O’Driscoll for one. His attack is there for all to see, but his defence is outstanding. His speed helps, and fearlessness does the rest. I would have nearly given him the award, and David Wallace was outstanding also.
England were totally outplayed. Their one try, an intercept by Steve Thompson of the scrum-half’s clearing pass from the lineout, must have had the officials pondering a possible off-side, and this was the only time they looked seriously dangerous for the entire match.
I had thought that they have made great strides in the last nine months, but last autumn, South Africa successfully bludgeoned them into submission; despite a second-half recovery they were headed all the way by New Zealand; and now Ireland have completely outplayed them. England simply may not have enough ways to win matches.
After the ridiculous injustice of the previous weekend in Cardiff, Ireland finished the championship in real style. They proved that they will threaten any side come September and they all wore the satisfied smiles of men who know they have given of their best. I even saw Ronan O’Gara smile!