Ireland finally deliver on potential
Kidney nails key calls to restore hope of scaling new heights at World Cup
Worth waiting for ... After all the talk of cusps, being on the verge, jigsaws and mountains to climb, the 'complete' Irish performance everyone had been craving was achieved in spectacular style before a delirious Lansdowne Road crowd on Saturday evening.
England still claimed the title, a deserved acknowledgement of their status as the most consistent side in a fluctuating Six Nations. However, such was Ireland's dominance in every facet of play that the gloss was scorched off that Anglo achievement and the champions have been left with some serious soul-searching to go with their bonus cheques.
For all the jingoistic hype that accompanies clashes with our former colonial masters, it cannot be denied that victory over England tastes that little bit sweeter -- denying them a Grand Slam in the process left this triumph dripping with honey and a sprinkling of hundreds and thousands.
Their manager Martin Johnson is an admirable figure, imbued with a determination and gravitas that made him one of the finest second-rows and captains in rugby history -- qualities that have stood to him since he has crossed over to the other side. Despite the crushing defeat, the England manager carried himself with great dignity afterwards, speaking frankly about his side's deficiencies and Ireland's strengths.
Nonetheless, given his Lansdowne Road history and general image of bristling defiance, Johnson was destined for the role of pantomime baddie on Saturday and, when his scowling visage flashed up on the big screens with 30 seconds to go, there was a roar of approval from triumphant Irish supporters. Grand Slam-winning coach? Oh no he isn't.
Throughout this championship we have always maintained that England were greater than the sum of their parts. Individually, with a couple of exceptions such as Chris Ashton and Dan Cole, the English players are nothing exceptional but, combined, they had produced some compelling rugby.
Against Ireland, they were never allowed to get into their stride. Mike Tindall is not the first cousin of a second centre in the Jeremy Guscott sense, but the England captain is a powerful presence and figurehead for this team and his absence was keenly felt.
Land of Hape and glory? Not so much -- when matched against the greater experience and superior firepower of Brian O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy, the English midfield had all the punch of Willie 'Big Bang' Casey against Guillermo Rigondeaux.
Shontayne Hape is a journeyman mercenary press-ganged into the England centre with Matt Banahan, a tattooed totem pole, alongside. Banahan can use his 6'7" frame to bish-bosh effectively, but asking a converted second-row to switch from wing to centre was a big ask, in every sense.
Every Irish player had the upper-hand on his opponent and this victory could have been even more emphatic with a O'Driscoll try, which looked perfectly legitimate, called back for a forward pass, evoking memories of the officiating error that cost Ireland the week before in Wales.
However, those concerns were swiftly allayed as Jonathan Sexton continued to build the home side's advantage with his penalty kicking while England buckled under the relentless pressure to cough up touchdowns for Tommy Bowe and O'Driscoll (who became the tournament's all-time leading try-scorer in the process).
It meant Ireland were 24-3 ahead with just 48 minutes on the clock and, though they did not score again, they limited the putative 'Slammers' to a freak intercept try from replacement hooker Steve Thompson. Much of the focus afterwards focused on the Irishmen's greater experience, in terms of average age (28 versus 26) and caps (622 v 314), and this undoubtedly was a significant factor, but of even more weight was the desire and frustration in the Irish camp to bring to fruition what they all knew was there.
It had been a tetchy campaign for Ireland, characterised by issues with officials and unforgiving, microscopic scrutiny. Ireland's problems with discipline, unforced errors and consequent issues with confidence deserved to be highlighted while there were selection decisions also that merited debate, such as the out-half call for the final game and Paddy Wallace's continued presence on the bench in place of specialist back-three cover. However, even allowing for this, some of the criticism went over the top, particularly in relation to the coach and captain, whose contributions were compared unfavourably to previous achievements.
Both men gave a powerful answer on Saturday. Kidney's key calls of Sexton at out-half and Keith Earls at full-back paid off in spades while O'Driscoll was simply immense, with his chief lieutenant in the forwards, Paul O'Connell, close behind in the inspiration stakes.
Donncha O'Callaghan and David Wallace were other standout performers, but time should be taken to acknowledge the contribution of some of the less-heralded contributors. Starting with Les Kiss. Ireland's defence coach is one of the main reasons for confidence heading to New Zealand. Of the paltry four tries Ireland conceded, only one, against France, came directly from a missed tackle with no mitigating circumstances attached.
Steve Thompson's score on Saturday stemmed from Eoin Reddan's pass, but that should not take away from a superb overall contribution. When Ireland were establishing their dominance in the first half, the scrum-half was instrumental to the tempo, picking and feeding and harrying, never allowing he English defence to settle while carrying the constant threat of breaking himself.
Then there is Rory Best. Being without a hooker of Jerry Flannery's calibre would test any side but Best, bar some needless penalty concessions, has had a fantastic tournament, with a leadership quality that marks him out as a potential successor to O'Driscoll. He is still only 28.
Finally, there is Mike Ross. Following the frustration of playing second fiddle to a South African on his return to Irish rugby with Leinster, Ross has established himself as one of the premier scrummaging tight-heads in the game and emphasised as much against England. Indeed, his withdrawal after 57 minutes had a destabilising effect on the Irish scrum, which could have been costly under different circumstances.
Something to bear in mind looking down the road. However, now is a time to bask in the positives. The conviction that Kidney is destined to oversee Ireland's best World Cup performance later this year had been shaken by some hit-and-miss displays and attracted its share of derision when expressed here over the past two months.
Of course, there will be the usual bout of collective amnesia that tends to follow turnaround victories with more flip-flops than you would expect at a hippy concert, but the fact remains that Kidney is a coach schooled on cup rugby and is the ideal man to mastermind Ireland's assault on New Zealand 2011.
The key is to use this thrilling triumph, which properly re-established Lansdowne Road as the home of Irish rugby, as the springboard for the bigger challenge. The standard has been set.
IRELAND -- K Earls; T Bowe, B O'Driscoll (capt), G D'Arcy (P Wallace 78), A Trimble; J Sexton (R O'Gara 59), E Reddan (P Stringer 78); C Healy, R Best (S Cronin 78), M Ross (T Court 57); D O'Callaghan, P O'Connell (L Cullen 78); S O'Brien, D Wallace (D Leamy 71), J Heaslip.
ENGLAND -- B Foden; C Ashton, M Banahan, S Hape, M Cueto (D Strettle 65); T Flood (J Wilkinson 50), B Youngs (D Care 45); A Corbisiero, D Hartley (S Thompson 50), D Cole (P Doran-Jones 50); L Deacon (T Croft 54), T Palmer (S Shaw 25); T Wood, J Haskell, N Easter (capt).
REF -- B Lawrence (NZRU).