Six Nations: Ireland slam door shut on England
Ireland 24 England 8: Ireland made a nonsense of England’s pretentions on Saturday and by so doing put down a marker against which they will be gauged for the remainder of 2011.
Finally they delivered the turbo-charged, total-rugby to which they had aspired but, prior to this, had not been able to produce other than in fleeting glimpses.
Saturday — the day on which the new Aviva Stadium at last began to feel like home — saw them keep it going for 80 minutes during which they outplayed an England side intent on a Grand Slam.
Ireland were having none of that. It seemed that the very idea of English opponents achieving that particular accolade on Irish soil served only to put fire in the hosts’ bellies.
But it wasn’t a case of all blood and guts, for whilst Ireland were indeed wholly committed in pursuit of their goal they were clever and creative, too. And they were highly disciplined, never allowing their heartfelt passion to prevent keeping their heads.
This was Ireland at their best. There were no weaknesses, with every individual contributing to the whole. Their scrum was outstanding, as was their line-out.
Ulster skipper Rory Best excelled in both set pieces in the course of what was arguably the best performance of his 47-cap international career to date.
He was aided and abetted in the scrum by tighthead Mike Ross, who made a very strong case for himself as the cornerstone of a scrum that never looked anything other than comfortable. Cian Healy also had a great afternoon.
On the first occasion the front rows locked horns, Ireland made a clear statement of intent by walking the English eight back, with Jamie Heaslip controlling the ball with his feet as they did so.
That moment came right at the outset and instantly it lifted the home team and crowd. For the remainder of the afternoon they were as one, with those in stands savouring all of what was happening on the pitch.
There was plenty for them to enjoy. Jonathan Sexton — who finished the day with four out of four first-half penalties, although he did miss a difficult conversion following Tommy Bowe’s try — delivered a man-of-the-match display which earned him a standing ovation when he was called ashore to make way for Ronan O’Gara late on.
Sexton, who was much-criticised for his unfortunate role in Ireland’s defeat to Wales, showed just how potent a force he can be.
He wasn’t the only hero, of course. Brian O’Driscoll’s dander certainly was up, while wing Andrew Trimble, like Bowe, worked tirelessly, both in attack and defence. He carried well and tackling relentlessly in the course of a performance which must have left him wishing the series was starting rather than ending.
If Ireland were playing again next weekend, Trimble would be wearing number 11. No doubt about that. Having waited until the final game of the 2011 Six Nations for his first run, he grabbed the opportunity with both hands.
Ireland’s appetite for work said everything about what this game meant to them, as did the fact that their intensity, physicality, energy, pace and aggression did not waver. They started and finished in top gear leaving one to reflect on their earlier error-strewn performances and wonder what might have been.
Certainly they benefited from having gone into a 14-0 lead before half-an-hour had elapsed. A perfect hat-trick of Sexton penalties and Bowe’s fine try — created by Sexton’s quick thinking — left Ireland in the driving seat and England wondering what had hit them.
It might have been even more had not an O’Driscoll try from a Heaslip-Bowe set-up been disallowed for a forward pass. That was a tight call.
A 32nd minute Toby Flood penalty, six minutes after the English stand-off missed an easier first attempt, was cancelled out when the almost-flawless Sexton replied in kind before the break to restore the 14-point cushion.
To add to England’s numerous problems scrum-half Ben Youngs did his side’s cause no favours at all be getting himself sin-binned for throwing the ball away after the concession of the fourth of Ireland’s penalties.
It proved to be his last action for when the requisite 10-minute spell was up it was Danny Care who played behind the scrum for the remainder of the game.
O’Driscoll’s record-setting 25th Championship try seven minutes into the second-half was another example of his genius in picking up at full tilt when Donncha O’Callaghan was felled just short.
Sexton’s extras left England a hopeless 24-3 adrift which meant that Steve Thompson’s 53rd minute try, when he intercepted a sloppy pass from Eoin Reddan following a line-out, was of no consolation.
Ireland can reflect on an outstanding afternoon’s work, every player having stepped up. Paul O’Connell was a colossus alongside another — O’Callaghan — in the engine room. Sean O’Brien threw down a gauntlet to Stephen Ferris with a magnificent performance on the blind side of a back row in which Heaslip had his best game in green for a very long time and David Wallace also excelled.
Is Keith Earls a full-back? I don’t know in that he was never tested by opponents who, despite having won the Championship, will feel that to be a somewhat hollow achievement in view of what rejuvenated Ireland did to them.