Monday 20 November 2017

Vincent Hogan: Lumbering brawn brigade handed hell of a beating

Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

WELL what did England expect, tossing on a prop in place of Toby Flood? A set torture of the new Lansdowne Road is a chap on the tannoy, cursed with a devotion to the visually challenged and those who've just got rocks in their heads. So he keeps them up to date on all the difficult stuff. Like keeping score.

Hence, the view that England might be the rugby equivalent of that Brooklyn cop who found a dead horse on Kosciusko Street and dragged it around to Reid Avenue because he couldn't spell Kosciusko in his report, found spectacular expression on Saturday night.

Actually, as the beer-barrel figure of Paul Doran-Jones rumbled out into the rain, we discovered that this England team was more faithful to the image of its coach than any of us had ever really fully understood.

For the man from the Samaritans announced that Martin Johnson had just sent on Doran-Jones in place of his fly-half.

Heaven protect us. Some kind of anxiety neuroses had clearly swept the England coaches' box and, in fairness, who could blame them? They trailed 24-3, their Grand Slam already ground to dust. Maybe they were just trying to clog the arteries of space now.

It got even spookier. But, just as we were being informed that Jonny Wilkinson was being pitched into the England front-row to replace Dan Cole, the man with the microphone did the one decent thing still available to him. He shut up.

He'd already interrupted Flood's run-up to a shot at goal, making a substitute announcement when just about everyone else in the ground had hushed. Flood, unfortunately, missed his kick. It was slapstick stuff and you couldn't but wonder how many in the attendance were in need of this rugbyby- Braille initiative. True, maybe some in the press seats could do with an extra crayon, but they generally overcome their struggles by listening to the radio.

Still, you forget how civilised England can be when their sky caves in. Even Johnson himself was a model of magnanimity as he faced the post mortems and virtually every one of his players dipped down into the ‘mixed zone' afterwards to politely face the music.

Flood encapsulated their group consensus when he declared: “They hammered us really. There was no fear, there was nothing that held us back. The fact is we just weren't able to get into the game and make a difference.”

Good manners should never go unacknowledged. And England's grace pretty much mirrored that of Ruby Walsh who, within seconds of Friday's remarkable Gold Cup at Cheltenham, delivered a classy tribute to the plum-voiced amateur who had just won the greatest prize in steeplechasing.

The general view on Saturday night was that this England team had, maybe, just been getting a little bit ahead of themselves.

Their greatest attribute is size, and the creepy spectacle of a centre out-fielding Donncha O'Callaghan to the opening drop-out wouldn't have looked out of place in a circus big top. But that was really the beginning and end of Matt Banahan's contribution and, thereafter, the only sound of furniture splintering was that of England's wardrobes getting pulped.

You didn't need to be a clairvoyant to know that the preliminaries would touch on Johnson's red carpet moment in '03 and the juvenile notion that it somehow disrespected our President. Johnson, in reality, was guilty of nothing more than the kind of belligerence that this Irish team, on Saturday, took to the realm of art.

In contact sport, big teams bully. It isn't complicated.

The talents of our cricketers and National Hunt communicants were, inevitably, invoked afterwards as a statement of the nation's recent superiority over Blighty in all things sporting.

And, in that, maybe there was something of the demented Norwegian soccer commentator about us – the one who name-checked the Lords Nelson and Beaverbrook, Winston Churchill, Anthony Eden and Clement Atlee after a surprise 2-1 defeat of England in Oslo 30 years ago, before declaring “Maggie Thatcher, can you hear me? Your boys took a hell of a beating!”

Then again, this was Ireland's seventh victory from the last eight meetings with the Red Rose, so maybe it's time to start coming across a little more haughty and impassive.


The team played wonderfully, of course and, in hindsight, might easily have won a Slam themselves this year. Yet, given the threadbare wins in Rome and Edinburgh, they weren't a million miles away from being nought from four on Saturday morning either.

England will be back for a pre-World Cup jaunt in August and, hair still wet from the showers, had already begun targeting that as a day “to right some wrongs”.

Truth is, this was a jumbled, neurotic Six Nations that Ireland just happened to finish splendidly. We're not actually much wiser than we were six weeks back, apart from knowing that the team is capable of the epic and the crass. This was their epic.

But England were dragging a dead horse.

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