Belfast Telegraph

Friday 18 April 2014

Peter Bills: Resilient performance helps put Wilkinson and English in shade

How did Ireland handle Jonny Wilkinson at Twickenham on Saturday? Well, truth to tell, they didn’t have to do a whole lot. For most of the time, the England fly half did the Irish defenders’ jobs for them by standing so deep in the defensive pocket that few Irish players could reach him.

This was a marvellous wheeze except for one thing. It meant that England struggled even to reach the gain line in many of their attacks.

And when the ball was hurled to colleagues on the deeper defensive line, behind a couple of dummy runners, England lost even more ground.

The Irish defenders licked their lips at such a scenario. However, there was one crucial moment when Ireland put Wilkinson firmly in their sights.

That moment was when Ulsterman Tommy Bowe won the match for his side.

Bowe, who had already scored in the third minute, took a pass from Tomas O’Leary round the side of the English defence at great pace.

He smashed through an inviting hole that opened up where Jonny Wilkinson should have been.

Alas for England, Wilkinson wasn’t there and Bowe raced through the gap to slip past the last defender and score.

On the few occasions Wilkinson did attack the defensive line by playing flatter, he was well marshalled.

The Irish defence was formidable all day, making 100 tackles in the match compared to just 30 by England.

As coach Declan Kidney said later: “We stuck at it despite not having the ball for a lot of the time. You expect to win if you score three tries away from home but our tackle count had to be quite high.”

But not as high as the courage and determination which Ireland showed throughout.

What was especially commendable was that this performance came just two weeks after the shattering loss to France.

We always wondered how that would affect this Irish team and we got a pretty emphatic response at Twickenham on Saturday.

For sure, this was nothing special as a game. Conditions were difficult, the ball slippery. But Ireland’s sheer desire and willingness to dog it out brought them home to victory, their sixth in the last seven matches against England.

How times have changed. But the poverty of England’s game was obvious long before the end.

They had enough ball to win two games but never seriously threatened to turn possession into points through tries.

Only once, when prop Dan Cole crashed over on the hour, did they threaten to turn all that pressure into match-winning points.

Ireland’s resilience, not just in facing Wilkinson but every other player, was tremendous.

They had to soak up long spells without the ball yet went on tackling and, as far as possible, maintaining their shape and cohesion.

They even withstood the loss through a head injury of inspirational skipper Brian O’Driscoll.

But it was noticeable that even without their captain, Ireland still did not panic. They found other ‘leaders’ to guide and inspire them, the likes of Jamie Heaslip who won the man of the match award, Paul O’Connell, Tommy Bowe and Geordan Murphy. And Stephen Ferris tackled as hard and consistently as any player on the field.

This win should set up a Triple Crown triumph for Ireland. France look certainties for the Grand Slam, with only home games against Italy and England to come.

But the Triple Crown must be in Ireland’s sights now after this great scrambling defensive performance.

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