Ireland expose England's flaws
Graham Jenkins in Dublin
March 19, 2011
Ireland players celebrate Tommy Bowe's try against England © Getty Images
It was extraordinary, but we should have seen it coming. Ireland captain Brian O'Driscoll has been telling us that his side were on the brink of something special for some time and that is exactly what they produced against Grand Slam-chasing England on Saturday.
The hosts gatecrashed England's party with a brilliant display that barring something spectacular at the Stade de France will rank as the best performance in the entire Six Nations. They did not just beat an England side rated by many as the best in the northern hemisphere - they totally out-played, out-fought and out-thought them to shake up the world order.
The key to the victory was an unprecedented level of intensity for this year's Championship and England could simply not live with them. A superior hunger and work-rate rattled the visitors early on and they never recovered. Ireland stole the initiative and from that point the pressure was as relentless as the drumming that accompanied each foray deep into English territory.
The composure and the possession that England targeted coming into the game were noticeable by their absence. Those players short on experience of such gladiatorial contests were fodder for a Lansdowne Road crowd that came of age.
'Bring back roar' urges the perimeter advertising at the revamped ground, hoping to stir the emotion that echoed around the old ground on which the new stadium was built. That rallying call has gone largely unanswered since Ireland made their bow last year, but not on this occasion. A rousing national anthem set the tone before the crowd roared into life, fuelled by the energy and courage of their side.
In return Ireland's heroes upped their game and banished the errors that have plagued their best efforts in this year's Championship. Leading the way was fly-half Jonathan Sexton, who silenced his doubters with a Man of the Match display. An early quick-tap penalty illustrated his mindset and the team's determination to play and dictate the contest. He continued to torment England and reaped rich rewards on the back of a ball-hungry pack.
The crowd rose as one to salute the Leinster playmaker when he left the field with the game won but there was no let-up for England, Ronan O'Gara turning the screw with some superb touches as the rain threatened to spoil the game as a spectacle. Two touch-finders in particular twisted the knife in England's gut and told them, if they didn't know already, that their Slam dream was nothing more than that.
It is never a surprise to find captain Brian O'Driscoll at the heart of an outstanding Irish display and that was the case again. The talismanic centre set the bar in defence and also crossed for a record-breaking 25th Championship try - eclipsing the mark of Scotland's Ian Smith and adding further weight to his status as one of the sport's all-time greats. Compounding England's woes, he and his midfield partner Gordon D'Arcy, who was another of those to rise to the occasion, equalled the record for centre combination appearances held by England's Will Carling and Jeremy Guscott.
This was a compelling team effort peppered with brilliant individual performances. No.8 Jamie Heaslip was at his ball-stealing best, lock Donncha O'Callaghan was a constant thorn in England's side and fullback Keith Earls was a valuable spark. Take a bow one and all. As is the way, coach Declan Kidney will not get too carried away with this victory as he is well aware that the goal is to produce this week in, week out - a task that has so far eluded a side that has a limited amount of miles left in the tank.
England can have no complaints. They came up short on all fronts and while they may have been a little unlucky to see scrum-half Ben Youngs yellow carded for throwing the ball away the game was already escaping them before that point.
This was not the side that announced themselves as a potential world power with victories over Australia last year. They were bullied from pillar to post by an Irish side that thrived on the pressure of the occasion, while England suffered from stage fright and were not up for the fight. England will not be looking for excuses but the relative inexperience of their side cost them dear. You do not know how a player will react to such an intense environment until they step into the arena and while certain players failed to deliver the scars of this defeat will serve them well down the line.
Youngs' sin-binning brought a welcome end to a poor display from the talented No.9, who has lost his way in recent weeks, having earlier threatened to spearhead this new generation's quest for glory. The indiscipline and wayward kicking will not make for happy viewing when the analysis and post-mortem begins.
Fly-half Toby Flood was also off his game just when his side needed his steady hand most. An early missed penalty proved to be a warning of worse to come and perhaps Flood sensed it was not going to be his day as he stood and stared at his kicking tee as if expecting it to apologise. There were also question marks over his game management, although his failure to make an impression on proceedings was largely down to Ireland's dominance of possession and territory.
They were not the only ones to have wilted in the heat of battle. The centre pairing of Shontayne Hape and Matt Banahan failed to make any headway in the face of O'Driscoll and D'Arcy while captain Nick Easter's main role seemed to be to question the repeated blast of referee Bryce Lawrence's whistle.
Replacements Danny Care, Steve Thompson, Jonny Wilkinson and Tom Croft injected life into a battle-weary side but did not have the beating of a resolute Irish unit. Chances came as Ireland's monumental effort began to take its toll but the defensive toil had also knocked the stuffing out of England, errors littered what creativity they could muster.
That will not be Martin Johnson's main concern. He knows his side has the capacity to turn it on - what is not clear is if they have the mental strength to weather such defeats and emerge stronger for the experience. He will take hope from his own experiences as part of a side that flunked three Grand Slam examinations before sealing the deal in 2003. Time will tell if this group of players can find a similar resolve.
The Six Nations silverware - if they are to collect it in the low-key setting of the team hotel - will not be much comfort. Their achievements to date have come largely at the expense of limited opposition - be that of mind or body, and Ireland were not wanting in either department. This England side simply did not deserve a Grand Slam. To be the best you have to beat the rest and they are clearly some way short of both of those goals.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum.