Tuesday 21 November 2017

Bowe’s brilliant double

Brendan Fanning in Twickenham

Myth of fortress Twickenham in tatters as late try thwarts old enemy

When you come to Twickenham and see the magnificent 82,000 stadium that is now home to England -- a fitting reflection of the colossal operation that is rugby here -- you wonder how a country like Ireland can rack up stats like six wins from the last seven meetings between these nations, but that's where we're at just now.

In the old days when we were scratching around looking for narrow defeats which we could wave a wand at and turn into moral victories, England wasn't on the magic list. Noel Murphy used to try to lift people's spirits by telling us that it was all cyclical and Ireland would deliver at some point.

It shouldn't be. Or at least Ireland's cycles of success against England should be short and marvellous. Instead, this is turning into a saga where the English dread the sight of us.

A headline in one of the local papers here yesterday declared that Ireland could be beaten. Indeed. Not too long ago we would have been happy just to be taken seriously. And when Jonny Wilkinson -- surely the best executor and timer of drop-goals that the game has ever seen -- put his team ahead for the first time in the match with a lovely strike 10 minutes from time, the same headline writer must have reckoned his call had been a good one.

By that stage Ireland had lost their captain, and had been forced to replace their centurion tight-head John Hayes. The prop was attracting too much attention from referee Mark Lawrence and was called ashore; Brian O'Driscoll, on the other hand, had the undivided attention of the medics after a sickening collision between his head and the knee of Paul O'Connell.

You combined all that lot and factored in England's momentum and reckoned that this was a useful time for Ireland to withdraw some of that survival lodgement built up over 12 games unbeaten coming to Paris two weeks ago. And sure enough, not unlike the flourishing finish that took Ireland clear through Shane Horgan in this fixture four years ago, the away team did it again.

In fact, they did it in the same corner. And again it was the right winger. The identity was different, however: Tommy Bowe had set the game racing in the fourth minute with a cracking try, and now he changed its direction for the last time with a score that was different in content but matched it for style.

From a perfectly delivered and retrieved line-out, Bowe ran a lovely line and Tomas O'Leary delayed his pass long enough to make it a deal-breaker. The wing cruised past two stranded white shirts and was punching the air before landing. Ronan O'Gara's conversion took Ireland four points clear and that left England needing a try to save themselves.

They couldn't manage it in 2006 and they couldn't manage it yesterday. Confidence isn't high in Martin Johnson's camp and when you're faced with those sort of odds and time running out, self-belief is the difference between arriving on time and being critically delayed. As ever, the England coach was battling afterwards to put a brave face on it.

The Ireland camp was an altogether happier place to be. They had scored three tries to one and ridden out a few storms in a game that began with the promise of lots of open rugby, but closed up a bit after the skies opened.

Had it gone with the original script, then you'd have backed Ireland to come home first in that one too. Their only real causes for concern were at the scrum, and Declan Kidney reacted before it became critical. Its lowest point was a series of five-metre scrums just after the hour mark that ended eventually with Dan Cole getting over from a close-in charge. The doubt in the score had been introduced by Donncha O'Callaghan getting underneath him.

It was good work from O'Callaghan, who tried hard but was guilty of giving away two penalties for the same offence. Mr Lawrence established early that not respecting the back foot at the breakdown was going to be a problem and O'Callaghan should have learned from England No 8 Nick Easter, who was picked up for the same offence in the first half.

O'Callaghan's selection ahead of Leo Cullen had been controversial and Cullen eventually got on the field as part of a relief mission that left only Eoin Reddan and Sean Cronin on the bench. O'Callaghan's partner, Paul O'Connell, joked afterwards that Ireland's only missed tackle had probably been down to him. His commitment, as ever, was first class but he spilled a lot of ball.

Other key players kept their error count lower, though. Geordan Murphy did well with so little match practice to call on; Gordon D'Arcy's footwork was consistently good and at outhalf Jonny Sexton was excellent. His straightening of the line after a great pick-up from Stephen Ferris -- Jamie Heaslip had shoved the move across filed -- and grubber for Bowe for the first try were on the money.

His goal-kicking dragged him down statistically (one from five) but they were all very hard kicks and there was nothing wrong with his technique. Nor indeed that of the defence. The team stat of 99 tackles and one missed is hard to credit but that's what came out of the game.

It was anybody's at half-time at which point Ireland led 8-6, with Sexton and Wilkinson swapping penalties after Bowe's early try. You felt Ireland needed a break and it came with Danny Care -- not the cleverest fellah -- had a penalty reversed for throwing O'Leary out of it, off the ball. That allowed Ireland the position and from there, through O'Leary and Sexton, they worked a lovely try for Keith Earls.

So, 13-6 ahead looked good but the restart reception was poor and England were invited back into the game. Cole and Wilkinson combined to draw it level, and then Wilkinson's drop-goal on 71 minutes thrilled the crowd.

Not for long. Despite losing O'Driscoll, Ireland worked their way back into it and their form player finished in style. They will take a while to recover from this effort but it will be time enjoyed. Wales are next.

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