Friday 23 March 2018

Johnson's men lack steel for big occasion

Andrew Baldock

It was meant to be all about the Grand Slam for England in Dublin -- but a "grand sham" took centre-stage instead.

Trailing by 21 points inside an hour, England crumbled under pressure and expectancy as they failed abysmally to seize the moment.

And their 24-8 defeat confirmed that mental strength remains a quality Martin Johnson's team has still to acquire heading towards the far greater challenge of a World Cup in New Zealand later this year.

The chances are that England will receive the Six Nations trophy -- albeit in a central Dublin hotel, rather than the Aviva Stadium, after Wales have finished business against France tonight -- but it will be the most hollow of title triumphs.

They won narrowly in Cardiff last month, then made home advantage count by seeing off Italy, France and Scotland, but the Ireland game proved 80 minutes too far.

The nightmare scenario unfolded quickly for England, 14-0 down inside 30 minutes following three Jonathan Sexton penalties and a Tommy Bowe try.

It could have been even worse had Ireland captain Brian O'Driscoll not seen a touchdown disallowed, and England's woes were summed up when Toby Flood woefully shanked his opening penalty attempt.

He made amends by opening England's account midway through the second quarter, but the visitors still had it all to do, remaining under intense pressure as Ireland pressed for a second try before the break.

A yellow card for Ben Youngs -- the second England scrum-half in successive Dublin visits to be sin-binned -- handed Sexton a gift penalty for 17-3, then Sean O'Brien narrowly failed to touch down under corner-flag pressure from Chris Ashton.

And a total mismatch of a first half was summed up when England, panicked to the core, could not wait to get the ball out of play and regroup for the second period.

Hooker Steve Thompson's touchdown hinted at the merest flicker of an England revival, his score arriving after Johnson had summoned renowned match-winner Jonny Wilkinson from the bench. Even that though, came too late, almost a token score after O'Driscoll had scored a career record 25th international championship try to confirm another dismal England effort with the stakes at their highest.

Three times in succession, England flunked a Grand Slam attempt, losing to Wales, Scotland and Ireland from 1999 to 2001, and it is a trait that has clearly not deserted them.

For all the good work that is taking place under Johnson, this result will hurt England's 2003 Grand Slam and World Cup-winning captain more than most.

He is not used to finishing second-best, whether it was playing for England, the Lions, Leicester or, one imagines, organising a game of family football in the back garden.

Johnson does not do losing -- never has, never will -- and it is a lesson his players need to learn sooner, rather than later. Last night in Dublin, and for weeks to come, England once again find themselves playing a Grand Slam pain game.

Sunday Indo Sport

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