England plagued by yellow fever
February 28, 2009
England boss Martin Johnson has plenty of food for thought after another ill-disciplined performance © Getty Images
With their third successive victory in this year's Six Nations, Ireland are now the only side within reach of a much-prized Grand Slam but the headlines from this game will centre once again on England's disciplinary shortcomings.
Two more yellow cards - taking their tally to ten in four games - handed the advantage and the game to Ireland. Playing a quarter of the game with just 14 men is going to come at a cost and the amazing thing is that England do not appear to be learning from their mistakes.
England manager Martin Johnson did well to keep his anger in check in his post-match interview - and anyone adept at lip-reading will have got the message when the cameras cut to him for his reaction during the game.
The England boss said it himself with his assessment following the game - 'stupid'. When warnings are not heeded you will be penalised. Referee Craig Joubert could not have made it any clearer and Johnno will be rightfully frustrated as his players have let him down.
He and his coaches can only do so much and then it comes down to the players, as professionals, to deliver. Quite simply they aren't. And what makes it worse is that it's not the same players - it's like a virus going through the side.
They played for twenty-minutes with one less man and only lost by a point - just think about what could have been.
To dwell so long on England's woes is to do a disservice to a battling display from the Irish and in particular their talisman Brian O'Driscoll. He delivered a superb performance.
We know he's world class, and has been for many years, but he appears to be back to his very best. That's three stand-out performances in a row, and three tries, and if they are to end a 61-year drought for their second Grand Slam then no doubt it will be largely down to the influence of the Leinsterman.
With his side's dreams of Grand Slam in the balance after an opening period that failed to register a reading in terms of entertainment value (the biggest cheer of the half had greeted O'Driscoll getting to his feet after shaking off a big tackle) it needed something special.
Ireland's quiet-spoken coach Declan Kidney will no doubt have worked some magic but it was O'Driscoll the player, and more importantly the captain, that stepped up to provide the leadership and impetus required.
The try may not have been his most spectacular but he'll rarely score a more important one and his drop goal was exquisite. Add to this the fact that he required smelling salts to recover from a couple of heavy blows before refusing to make way and failed to remember certain parts of the game during his post-match interview then you have the latest example of why 'in BOD we trust'.
What's sparked his recent run of form? Maybe he has some unfinished business with the Lions - having had his 2005 tour to New Zealand cruelly ended. He is assured of selection this summer, as long as he stays injury free, and surely in the running to match Johnno's feat of having captained two tours. However, it is widely thought a forward will be given the honour for the extreme physical challenge of the Springboks - but in this kind of form it is hard to rule him out.
As for the game itself, Ireland were struck by nerves as much as anything in the opening exchanges - none more so than record-chasing Ronan O'Gara, who missed out on claiming the all-time points record in the Six Nations with a rare off-day with the boot. Had his radar been in full-working order then this would have been a comfortable victory for the Irish. Thankfully Ireland re-discovered some ambition that has served them so well in this year's Championship.
England came close to an upset here and the fact they didn't win the game when it was there for the taking just means a whole lot of pain is coming their way before they welcome France to Twickenham in a fortnight. And a victory would not have papered over the cracks - 16 penalties and those two yellow cards tell the story.
For now, Irish eyes are smiling but they are not getting carried away. A trip to Murrayfield awaits before what is increasingly looking like a title-decider with Wales in Cardiff. It appears this year's battle will go all the way to the wire.
"The only thing that will stop this England team from becoming a great team is themselves. They need to ask themselves 'what can we be?'" The Phil Vickery column
The latest Monday Maul looks at the hectic final weekend, the Lions hangover, the superb Mike Brown and the 'selfie'
"At the crux of this England team is a lack of fear, they are not afraid to throw playbooks out of the window." Tom Hamilton reports from Twickenham
"These little deft touches, the nuances O'Driscoll has perfected are what Ireland will miss most." Tom Hamilton on Brian O'Driscoll's final Test in Dublin