Yet again brute force can't save England
Visitors edge war of attrition, writes Eamonn Sweeney
Published 28/02/2010 | 08:05
England, England, they win lots of ball England, England, and then they do f*** all." Apologies, just trying out the words of Phil Coulter's latest rugby anthem, England's Call.
Because despite the fact that the home team owned the ball for long periods, this game fitted the pattern of several recent encounters between the two countries. It was close, it was edgy, what entertainment there was derived from suspense rather than quality of play and, in the end, Ireland won it.
Perhaps we shouldn't have. England spent considerably more time in our half than we did in theirs. Yet, for all their bulk and bustle, that old combination of a ponderous pack and lateral three-quarters ensured that once more we came away with the points. Ireland simply had the cutting edge that England don't possess any more, something highlighted by the fact that it was our two wings who bagged the three tries.
Tommy Bowe flourished on the Lions tour, his rich array of attacking skills standing out. Since then, there haven't really been that many openings, although he has always looked sharp, and, in truth, this wasn't the ideal game for a flying winger. It was one where victory was everything because neither side would have been that happy with the performance. A loss for Ireland would have been a huge step backwards, yet the unthinkable looked extremely likely when Jonny Wilkinson's drop-goal gave England the lead with 10 minutes left.
Cometh the hour, cometh the man. Bowe tore through for the winning try, putting the seal on a day which had begun with him in the very first minute claiming a mighty catch and which continued two minutes later with his sprint past Lewis Moody to touch down Jonny Sexton's deft grubber kick. Keith Earls was equally clinical when Ireland's other opportunity presented itself, skating in at the corner to make a tricky finish look easy.
There had seemed to be an ominous symmetry about Wilkinson's drop-goal coming so hot on the heels of Brian O'Driscoll's departure from the field. O'Driscoll has bounced back to his feet from so many apparently destructive blows that it gave you pause to see him being unable to recover.
And there was something sadly fitting about it being Paul O'Connell who had inadvertently caused the injury, because this was a day when both sides suffered from self-inflicted injuries. England's line-out dissolved, Ireland's scrum suffered, players put the ball into touch on the full and spilled it when in promising positions.
Yet that will hardly matter to Declan Kidney, no stranger to victories which are founded on efficiency rather than inspiration. While no one would confuse Ireland with the All Blacks, there was much to admire about the team, most notably the fighting spirit which this side seems perpetually able to summon up at moments of maximum difficulty.
There was a time when O'Connell epitomised this quality in the pack. The Munster man is still a considerable force but it is Jamie Heaslip who has now emerged as the figurehead of the Irish eight. Like Bowe, he has taken the experience of South Africa and used it to transform himself into an even more awesome proposition.
The Sexton-O'Gara controversy remains unresolved. After his dream start, Sexton mixed the composed with the callow and it was notable that the manager reached for the older out-half when the situation seemed desperate. But the kick for the first try alone was a reminder of the gifts the younger man possesses and which will earn him another starting berth next time out.
We are back on the Triple Crown trail. And, after a couple of years when the old bauble has been judged as being a bit infra dig for a team judged to be too big for such trifles, it would be quite welcome this time round. Wales will present a very different challenge but few would bet against a team which showed that the Paris pasting has not dismantled the central plank of its identity, the ability to do enough to win when the game hangs in the balance.