TALK about raining on England's parade. The stage was set for England's triumphant World Cup home-coming but Ireland clearly hadn't read the script. They produced a performance of rare verve and bravery to ignite the Six Nations and stick two fingers at the organisers and their England-France 'finale' in Paris three weeks from now.

While England's leaders never showed up, Ireland had heroes all over the sodden Twickenham pitch, where they last won in 1994. If England planned for Brian O'Driscoll, they got Gordon D'Arcy instead. If they thought they could upset the Ireland lineout ? where Malcolm O'Kelly had the game of his life ? instead it was Steve Thompson who was called ashore, a quivering mess.

And perhaps most of all, Ireland proved they have a defensive game to match any of the top sides in the world.

If Phil Larder's system is the mark against which Ireland have measured themselves, yesterday, they stood up to that mark with wonderful resolve.

For once too, Ireland made a decent start against one of the top-notch sides in world rugby. Well, a good start if you discount the shocking missed penalty by O'Gara in the fourth minute. It was the least they deserved after bombarding England with early pressure ? indeed, Paul Grayson was fortunate not to receive more than a stern talking to after he blatantly took O'Driscoll out following Peter Stringer's rather heavyfooted grubber into the ingoal area.

O'Gara's miss didn't appear too costly, however, for England were suffering from what looked like a severe case of stage-fright. Steve Thompson's first line-out throw went straight to the unattended John Hayes at the back, while there was some dreadful kicking from the hand by Grayson, Iain Balshaw and Josh Lewsey. Ireland, meanwhile, were clearly fired up, driving the first English maul backwards impressively. On the first occasion that Dawson tried one of his darts close to the break-down, Shane Byrne put his on his backside in no uncertain terms.

Ireland eventually got their reward, when Trevor Woodman was pinged for dragging the Ireland maul down ? the visitors had earned possession first by nicking an England throw. O'Gara kicked a much more difficult kick than his earlier gaffe.

The emphasis for both sides was very much on defence and indeed, a greasy ball didn't encourage a handling game. Just briefly, Gordon D'Arcy spied a centimetre of space in midfield and minutes later, Jason Robinson pirouetted between Reggie Corrigan and Keith Gleeson before being brought to earth by a trademark Peter Stringer ankle-tap.

But mostly it was juddering hits from both sides, with O'Driscoll and O'Gara apparently singled out for some particular treatment. O'Gara had to withstand one very heavy hit by an off-side Richard Hill, then dust himself down in time for a longrange shot at goal. Dizzy or not, he struck the ball confidently and Ireland were 6-0 in front.

After all that hard work, it must have been heart-breaking to see their lead disappear in the space of a couple of seconds. In a rare spell up field, the England scrum exerted enough pressure on the Irish eight to put Stringer under real pressure. The scrum-half, who was already having a difficult afternoon, was buried under a tackle by Lawrence Dallaglio, allowing Grayson to scoop up the loose ball. Dawson then took an intelligent line close to his out-half to give himself a free run-in.

Four minutes later, the Irish scrum was in trouble again. Corrigan was penalised this time and Grayson extended England's lead to audible sighs of relief around the old ground. But England weren't anywhere near their best yet. A really sloppy penalty concession by Woodman ? this time for not releasing ? allowed O'Gara another shot at goal when Ireland were barely threatening.

O'Gara was on target and then repeated the dose on the stroke of half-time as the Irish line-out maul rolled with sufficient menace to force England into collapsing.

Ireland came perilously close to losing their lead just after the break but thanks to the video referee Ben Cohen saw his try disallowed because he held on in D'Arcy's tackle. Heroic in defence, D'Arcy was then supreme in attack, carving England's midfield apart to set up Dempsey's try. It was a stunning try, featuring long cutout passes by Stringer and D'Arcy and deft offloads by the likes of O'Connell and Foley. Eventually, England ran out of defenders and Dempsey had a relatively easy run-in. O'Gara's conversion made it a dizzy 10-19 to Ireland.

Keep it simple? Ireland tried but D'Arcy continued to dazzle and the game loosened up ? it took a truly heroic tackle by O'Kelly on sub hooker Mark Regan to keep England out.

Grayson took England to 13-19 with a penalty in the 68th minute and then a horrendous mix-up between O'Gara and Foley meant there was another salvage operation in the Irish 22. But Ireland were now defending for their lives, blocking an English line-out maul in their right-hand corner and haring back furiously to clean up Grayson's chip near the dead-ball line. They knew the game was theirs.

SCORING SEQUENCE First half - 17 mins O'Gara pen, 0-3; 23 mins O'Gara pen, 0-6; 26 mins Dawson try, Grayson con, 7-6; 30 mins Grayson pen, 10-6; 32 mins O'Gara pen, 10-9; 40 mins O'Gara pen, 10-12. Second half - 50 mins Dempsey try, O'Gara con, 10-19; 67 mins Grayson pen, 13-19