Saturday 21 April 2018

Vincent Hogan: Shining Bowe lights the way

On-song hero sets sights on Croker crescendo

Tommy Bowe storms over the English lines to score the decisive late try during Saturday's Six Nations battle at Twickenham Photo: Getty Images
Tommy Bowe storms over the English lines to score the decisive late try during Saturday's Six Nations battle at Twickenham Photo: Getty Images
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Tommy Bowe comes to the balcony above the Twickenham gym, a shine in the corner of his eyes.

He's still taking the day into his lungs in great, child-like gulps. Nearby, a heavy-eyed Steve Borthwick can be seen hemmed in by English media, explaining himself to accusing eyes. Light and dark lie cheek to jowl here.

"Yeah, it was looking a bit dodgy," chuckles Bowe through a bright hallelujah of a smile.

Tommy has the freshness of a turpentined brush about him. He is tuxed up for dinner and his answers bear that vague, far-away tone of a man already saying grace. His 12th and 13th international tries have just book-ended a clumsy, slapstick game in London.

"Makes it a bit more special for me personally," agrees the Monaghan man.

Yet, England consternation fizzes all over the nature of his second one. It came off first-phase possession, you see. And, in international rugby, first-phase possession is but the exchange of telephone numbers in a courtship. Just a flutter in the rib-cage, nothing more.

So how on earth did Tommy get the girl?

Defence is science these days, so it shouldn't really happen. Yet, Ireland pinched the game, evading the English cover as if they were stepping around empty chairs. Paul O'Connell's line-out take; Tomas O'Leary's dart; Bowe's dance between the colliding skittles of James Haskell and Ugo Monye.

The winning solution all but written down in Braille.

Tommy is asked if, maybe, Ireland had been hanging at death's door? "No, definitely not," he counters. "We didn't have to score from that play. It was just a move ... we called earlier in the game and got it wrong. So, we called it again and it came off. It's not really designed to score off first phase, but just to get us on the front foot. Luckily today the hole opened up."

Already that hole has been explored and identified. Jonny Wilkinson has been in to surrender fingerprint whorls and volunteer for community service. Asked if he'd be critical of his "defensive play" for the winning try, he tossed back an ambiguous confession.

"I'm always critical of my positional play," sighed Jonny, already picturing the headlines. So he swallowed hard, a Steinway plummeting towards him from the Heavens. He looked like a one-man graveyard.

It is seven years since the kick that won the World Cup and, largely, they've been sober ones. Famously, Ireland pooped England's homecoming party in '04 and we have won six of our last seven meetings with the rose. History is just a dusty scrapbook.

England cling to the hope of a new dawn but, for all the bluster and operatic thunder of a Six Nations day at Twickenham, there is the palpable sense of a lost tribe. In Martin Johnson, they have a coach devoid of qualification and the national team seems locked in one-dimensional homage to his past.

Reality

The little conceited drumbeats that followed consecutive victories over Wales and Italy never quite obscured the reality that here was a side playing the game without subtlety or conspicuous intellect.

Ireland, mind, did their damndest to confuse us. After Jonny Sexton's sublime kick for Bowe's opening try, the weather rolled in, the light began to drain and the team got sucked into a contest with all the technical refinement of a mud-wrestle. At times, Twickenham looked like it was drowning.

The game became just attrition and grunt and long, quiet segments when you could all but hear corporate glasses clink in the high boxes.

One cameo pared the contest down to bare bone. Ireland were penalised at a ruck and Danny Care's natural urgency to get on with business was thwarted by the glue under Tomas O'Leary's oxter. The scrum-halves rutted briefly, Care then shunting the Corkman backwards in frustration.

Mr Lawrence called the two together, admonished both, then reversed the penalty.

"Silly. Been there, done that," Johnson would concede with commendable honestly at the post-game press conference. But that moment caught in microcosm his team. Just a blaze of dials spinning wildly.

They won an ocean of possession mind and Ireland's defence, so disoriented in Paris, faced serious scrutiny. In late evening, the official stats sheet arrived, declaring Ireland to have made a total of 99 tackles, missing one. A redemption song.

As Bowe surmised, "At least, we're back on the horse again. The France game is gone now. It was great to get back into camp straight after it. There was a lot written about it but, as a team, we stuck together. We didn't make too much of a big deal out of it. Every team slips up now and again.

"Obviously if we had lost today, the doubters would have been out again. But within the squad we know the talent that we've got. We know what we can do. We set our platform from defence really. And fair credit to the boys up front and the inside backs.

"It was super stuff to knock them backwards and it really was the telling factor of our victory. We put a lot of effort into that. After the French game was the first time in the past year we had to come into a team meeting and face criticism about the defence. It's one of our strengths, somewhere we like to lead the game from."

Of course, the most pertinent figures lay ultimately on the scoreboard. Ireland scored three well-constructed tries to England's solitary Ugly Betty. Keith Earls had already skated over -- again from an O'Connell line-out take -- by the time the TV umpire used X-ray glasses to declare Dan Cole's touchdown true.

Wilkinson converted and when, seconds later, Brian O'Driscoll's head snapped sickeningly against O'Connell's right knee, Declan Kidney must have felt like sending up an emergency flare. The captain, typically, picked himself off the ground only to topple over again on legs of cooked asparagus. Only intense coercion eventually got him on a stretcher.

Sublime

Kidney started shuffling his pack now, Leo Cullen, Ronan O'Gara and Shane Jennings all rolling in but, soon after, Wilkinson dropped a sublime goal. With 10 minutes remaining, England led for the first time and the chariots swung low. The chorus of Twickenham, impatient now for a close to business.

"We knew England were going to keep coming and keep coming," smiled Rory Best later, his face a map of grazes. "And there's always a threat with Jonny Wilkinson and a drop-goal or penalty. He's always going to get you three points. So we just had to dig deep.

"It was John Hayes' day and, as a pack of forwards, we wanted to really put in a performance for him. There was always going to be a lot of emotion surrounding that. He's such a big character, no airs or graces about him.

"But he's really been one of the main reasons that Irish rugby has come so far in the last 10 or 12 years."

Bull, by now, had long since reached the safety of the stand, his day's work done. Bowe's? Just one last grace note.

The gap opened in front of him like a splintering fence and he danced through it with a giddy stride. "Kind of a surreal feeling," he smiled later. "Because I've had a disappointing couple of games. Not getting maybe as involved as much as I had. I've been doing a lot of chasing the ball, so it was great to get my hands on it a little bit today. There's still an awful lot more I can give, an awful lot more I can do, ball in hand.

"But this is brilliant because the pressure really was on. It would have been easy for us to go back into our shells. So to close it out the way we did ... ..you know they just didn't look like they were going to score at the end. And that was a real credit to us.

"It puts us back in contention now with two games to come at Croker. Every player knows exactly what it means to play there, to be given that opportunity. And we definitely want to finish there on a high."

With that, he was gone into the deep, dark of a rain-drenched London night. Tuxed up and feeling good. Our very own Clark Gable.

Irish Independent

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