James Lawton: Colossus O'Driscoll has Ireland on course for historic Grand Slam
Published 02/03/2009 | 00:30
England had two grievous deficiencies, one of the brain and another of the genes. The heart remained sturdy, of course, but against the breadth of Ireland's talent and force one out of three was, despite the margin of just one point, never going to be enough.
It means that because of the flaws Martin Johnson's regime is now in danger not so much of failing as being pronounced still-born. Recidivism in one of the most basic aspects of the game which, let's face it, is not the most encouraging trait.
The first handicap is now pretty much institutionalised. Johnson's England apparently cannot play a Test match without making multiple visits to the sin bin. However much he rages about this – and some of his neighbours in the stand feared that at one point he might express his frustration by demolishing his own seat and perhaps those of others – it has to be feared that the manager is powerless to solve a problem that started off as a disturbing failure of professionalism and has now become nothing less than a source of widespread mockery.
The culprits, on this occasion former captain Phil Vickery and replacement scrum half Danny Care, leave the field with the injured expressions of victims of a conspiracy, and this of course compounds the dismay at the crassness of some of the offences.
Rehabilitation, in this case in grown-up rugby society, can only start when you know truly that you have done something wrong. As it stands, England will quite simply continue to disqualify themselves as an authentic international team if their coach cannot trust them to get through a Test match without going a man down for a minimum of 20 minutes.
England's other serious shortfall here was the lack of a player who might reasonably be said to be occupying the same planet as Brian O'Driscoll. At 30 Ireland's captain continues to remind us why his doctor father feared so much for his well-being at the outset of a career that has always been marked as much by its extraordinary physical commitment as sublime natural gifts.
Here we saw a definitive, game-breaking performance from the beloved "Drico." Off the field he may be inclined to muse with no more philosophical precision than that other virtuoso, Eric Cantona, but when game-time arrives he tends to be as relevant as a heat-seeking missile.
England's awareness of the threat he presented was so intense it might easily have swelled their numbers in the sin bin. Both Riki Flutey and Delon Armitage ran that risk, Flutey, when he put his body into O'Driscoll's face late and, it seemed, with some calculation, and Armitage when he planted himself in the path of O'Driscoll's pursuit of a kick.
O'Driscoll overcame these hits, and other assorted metal fatigue, with no more than a few mind-clearing shakes of his head. He vowed before the game that he would stand between England and the possibility that his nation's chance of a first Grand Slam in 61 years would again slide away – and he was unremittingly true to his word.
He dropped the goal that pushed Ireland back into the lead early in the second half and when his behemoth pack colleagues failed to overwhelm England at the line, he called for the ball and drove it home, low and unanswerably. He did many other extraordinary things, including an interception that would have wasted England but for the desperate defence of their embattled captain Steve Borthwick. O'Driscoll made hits that might have been heard in Sligo. And all the time his presence was for England a constant cruelty. You cannot make an O'Driscoll out of thin air or yearning – such figures come only once or twice in any one the generation of the game – but you can look for a breath of leadership, an ability to lead not with exhortation but the purest example.
Once again, England defended with considerable honour and commitment and the pack did not lack sinew or heart, but in the end the margin of Ireland's victory made a joke of their inherent superiority.
At no point in the game could there have been any sense that Ireland, for all their breakdowns of self-belief and the wretched place kicking of Ronan O'Gara – he threw away 11 points which normally he would have devoured -–were in serious danger of surrendering their latest ambition to walk in the footsteps of the legendary Jackie Kyle. O'Driscoll or maybe the enduringly magnificent Paul O'Connell, would surely find a way home.
One strong reason for such a conviction was that the most potent area of England's game, the back three pace and impact of Armitage, Paul Sackey and Mark Cueto, continued to dwindle before our eyes. Whether it was born of lost confidence, or sheer neglect, we could not know for sure, but this only increased the poignancy of Armitage's late run on to the kick of replacement fly-half Andy Goode. The try gave England one last opportunity to conjure a stunning victory, but, again, the overwhelming feeling had to be that against these opponents Ireland were beyond the most serious challenge.
What can England do in response to the great lurch into mediocrity that is marked now by just two victories, against a team of Pacific Islanders and a catastrophically selected Italy, since Johnson started running the team. One certainty is that they have to dare to do something. One starting point for Rob Andrew, whose job title of director of elite rugby becomes a little more risible with every fresh piece of evidence that the team who appeared in the last two World Cup finals have irretrievably lost their way, might be to glance across the English Channel.
For some time young French coach Marc Lièvremont was challenged over not only his selections but his sanity. On Friday night in Paris victory over reigning Grand Slam champions Wales naturally brought some mighty reappraisal. Lièvremont, it seemed, had always had something practical in mind.
Can we say the same of Martin Johnson? For the moment to even ask the question is to intrude into private grief. But then it threatens to be gruesomely public when the New France come to Twickenham in two weeks. Then the question, spoken or not, will be on everyone's mind. It will ask if Martin Johnson has already run out of time.