Wednesday 13 December 2017

Nervy English go to pieces with glory at their fingertips

Richard Williams THE ENGLISH VIEW

Martin Johnson already knew how it feels when Grand Slam aspirations crumble into dust. There was a time, during England's long procession to World Cup glory under Clive Woodward, when a last-ditch withering of the red rose seemed to be an annual feature of the international calendar. So Johnson is aware that it does not necessarily mean the end of all hope.

But England really were pretty dreadful, inferior to a rampaging Ireland in virtually every phase of the game. If they are not as bad as they were made to appear on their first visit to the sparkling new Aviva Stadium, nor are they as good as the claims made on their behalf following the victories over Wales and Italy with which they opened this Six Nations campaign.

They deserved what they got here for a generally shoddy performance.

Within two minutes, Ireland were pushing them back at the first scrummage, and forcing an infringement into the bargain. English arrogance off the pitch was rewarded when Jonathan Sexton responded to an isolated and unmannerly bellow of "Come on, England" shattering the silence as he prepared to take a first-half penalty by slotting the ball immaculately between the posts.

Ireland made mistakes too, but with the exception of the incautious Eoin Reddan pass which Steve Thompson intercepted for a defiant solo try, they made them on the front foot and were able to recover. England were forced to pay the heaviest of prices for their fumbles and misunderstandings.

Eight years ago, Johnson led his Grand Slam hunters out onto the wrong patch of turf at Lansdowne Road, and refused to budge. Yesterday afternoon he stood and watched, swigging from a bottle of orange juice, as his team huddled during the wait for Ireland to make their way out of the dressing-room for the pre-match ceremonies. This time protocol was followed and Mary McAleese, the Irish president, was not forced to get mud on her heels as she was introduced to the teams.

England's nerves were apparent as soon as they had gone 3-0 down to Sexton's penalty in the seventh minute, with Toby Flood's restart kick not reaching the 10-metre line and Ireland being awarded a scrum on halfway. A couple of minutes later Flood's half-back partner, Ben Youngs, attempted a typically adventurous and opportunistic dash around the fringe of a ruck, but dropped the ball and saw it clutched by Irish hands.

Few aspects of England's development over recent months can have pleased Johnson more than the dynamic, imaginative partnership of the 25-year-old Flood and the 21-year-old Youngs.

But there is still a callowness to their work, and there was another example of expensive fallibility midway through yesterday's first half when David Wallace chased Youngs as he raced away from a ruck on the short side, catching the scrum-half and forcing the ball from his grasp.

And when Flood was presented with a straightforward penalty, which would have put his side on the scoreboard, he hooked it wide. By the time he succeeded with his next attempt, Ireland were 14 points up, but in the following minutes two of his intended miss-passes -- one under pressure, the other not -- went to ground.

And soon Youngs was making his way to the sin-bin for the amazingly stupid crime of throwing the ball into the crowd after Wallace's buccaneering break had been halted.

When the scrum-half's 10 minutes of punishment were up, Danny Care came on to take his place. But no sooner were England back to full strength than they found themselves in complete disarray, Brian O'Driscoll sprinting on to a loose ball to lift the margin, with Sexton's conversion, beyond 20 points. Johnson would not have been cheered by the sight of two of the heroes of 2003, Thompson and Jonny Wilkinson, putting a bit of spine into his team in the closing stages.

The Aviva Stadium looks spectacular from its approaches, like the glass-clad cocoon of some robot-insect. But there is inevitably something antiseptic about new stadiums. Great deeds are needed to seep into the fabric, creating a patina of memory and affection. This was just such a day in Dublin 4.


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