A full 90 minutes before kick-off in Twickenham yesterday evening, a group of men in tracksuits gathered in the middle of the empty field, in a stadium empty of spectators, and linked arms for a few moments. Then they went off to a corner of the field, ran through a few stretching exercises, and headed back into the dressing-room.
If you wanted a picture of a group on a mission then you couldn't have done better than this.
Whether they were driven by the need to avoid defeat by Ireland for the eighth time in nine Championship meetings -- an incredible stat for a nation with more than five times Ireland's playing numbers -- or the desire to make a powerful case for hanging onto their interim coach, Stuart Lancaster, it wasn't clear. Either way, when Nigel Owens wrapped up a wet and chilly evening in west London, England had done what they'd planned to do: give Ireland a good seeing to up front, primarily at the scrum.
Their reward was runners-up spot in the Championship, following on from first place last season. Ireland finished in mid-table but it felt a bit lower than that. Sometimes you get games in the rain that rise above the conditions and have you on the edge of your seat. Wales's Grand Slam clincher over France earlier in the day was in that category. Not this one, however. It was a day for old-style rugby, pound the opposition and take your points. And that's what England did.
Declan Kidney had barely got his backside into the chair at the post-match press conference when he alluded to the absence of back-up to Mike Ross at tight head.
Ireland were under pressure in this phase from the start, but coping. Ross hurt his neck early in the contest, struggled on to shortly before half-time when it was anybody's game -- England went in 9-6 ahead having made a horlicks of the last minute -- and then the scrum slid backwards at increasing speeds.
Of the 13 penalties laid at Ireland's door, the bulk of them came at the scrum. It started in the first minute when they were barely out of the blocks and went on to the final straight. The solution, of course, would have come had Ireland been scrummaging against seven men, which would have been the case had referee Nigel Owens been able to verify an allegation of biting made by Stephen Ferris who needed treatment on his hand. Owens couldn't do that, and afterwards Kidney wouldn't comment on the incident in the second quarter.
In all of that first 40 minutes there was hardly a sniff of a try, with the flawless Owen Farrell getting more opportunities than Jonny Sexton and converting three to two. It opened up a bit after the break though, but not for Ireland. Initially they squandered a great chance after a Ben Foden break set up Tom Croft, but the flanker lost control of the ball when shaping to make the try-scoring pass.
Instead they found themselves back in their own 22 inside two minutes and coughing up three points to Sexton for playing the ball on the ground at a ruck.
So 12-9 to England after 52 minutes and with Ronan O'Gara on at the expense of the struggling Gordon D'Arcy, Ireland had huge footballing heft at 10 and 12. What they needed was momentum to let it work, but the scrum rendered that one a non-runner. And there were far too many of them for Ireland's liking.
It was from a five-metre set-piece that the referee sold England very short, blowing his whistle for a penalty before the ball was touched down by Tom Palmer. Naturally enough England opted to scrum again and they picked up a penalty try on that one when the Irish eight buckled before the England had messed it up at the back. It was an interesting call to say the least, but you got the impression that by that stage Mr Owens was looking to make amends.
Farrell's conversion made it 19-9 to the home team and with 20 minutes left to play all they had to do was put the ball in behind Ireland and make their tackles. In the circumstances that would require only modest discipline, and in fairness to Lancaster he has made progress in that area with England. If those tackles could be made on their terms then there was the chance of yet another penalty. On 65 minutes they got their seventh award at that phase alone and Farrell knocked it over to put them 22-9 ahead.
Just after that strike, Keith Earls took off upfield after gathering a loose ball and having left two defenders for dead needed to chip for Tommy Bowe, instead of taking contact. For a fleeting moment you could see the door opening for the away team only to close just as quickly. Earls took the tackle and the chance was lost.
That was the closest they came, and they had a fair bit of suffering to endure after that. It came in the shape of another Farrell penalty, and finally a try for replacement scrumhalf Ben Youngs. Would you believe it, it came from a penalty at a scrum with Youngs tapping and going and Ireland were in no shape to stop him.
It was a fitting end for a group who have worked extremely hard in this tournament having come into it weighed down with baggage from the World Cup. They may not have thrilled throughout but they made light of the load. And shifted it onto Ireland. You'd imagine their post-match huddle was a happy little ensemble.
England: B Foden (M Brown 76); C Ashton, M Tuilagi, B Barritt, D Strettle; O Farrell, L Dickson (B Youngs 48); A Corbisiero, D Hartley (L Mears 76), D Cole, M Botha, G Parling, T Croft, B Morgan (P Dowson 77), C Robshaw.
Ireland: R Kearney; T Bowe, K Earls, G D'Arcy (R O'Gara 49), A Trimble (F McFadden 75); J Sexton, E Reddan (T O'Leary 49); C Healy, R Best (capt), M Ross (T Court 37), D O'Callaghan (M McCarthy 66), D Ryan, S Ferris, J Heaslip, S O'Brien (P O'Mahony 70).
Referee: N Owens (Wales).
Sunday Indo Sport