You still have to scratch your head and wonder how on earth there was just one point between the teams at the end of yesterday’s hostilities. Ireland had possession, territory and control of the game for long periods, yet it was fortunate that Delon Armitage’s converted try came when it did in the dying seconds because if the full-back had connected with Andy Goode’s kick a couple of minutes earlier, who knows what might have happened.
If an inquisition is needed into how the Irish almost gave away their unbeaten record, there is definitely some salvation in a scoreline that clearly flattered the opposition. A first championship title since 1985 is very much there to be shot at, as well as, whisper it, that elusive Grand Slam.
Unlike in 2007 when England were so comprehensively put away, there was no glory on this occasion – only satisfaction. Martin Johnson and his coaches had done their homework, coming to Croke Park to stifle more than to inspire, and although Ireland dominated, the struggle was dour.
We were treated to one interminable session of first-half ping-pong which spoke volumes for both sides’ ambition, and if the trench warfare had a grim fascination about it, this was hardly a Six Nations contest that will live in the memory.
Faced by an abrasive and well-organised England defence in which Joe Worsley once again made a succession of big tackles, the Irish forwards backed themselves to rumble around the fringes. The pick-and-go tactic might not be a thing of beauty, but if executed properly, it inevitably wins you penalties. Ireland would smash their way upfield, and Ronan O’Gara would keep the scoreboard ticking over.
Except that this time, O’Gara could hardly buy a kick. Three penalties and the conversion of Brian O’Driscoll’s crucial second-half try all went astray as the out-half abjectly failed to give Ireland the cushion they so badly needed.
Could it have been the knowledge that he needed just 11 points to surpass Jonny Wilkinson’s record International Championship total of 479 that ruined his evening? Whatever the reason, it was more evidence of O’Gara’s chronic loss of form in the three games to date.
Just as well then that the team’s other talismen, O’Driscoll and Paul O’Connell, were there to take up the slack. Even though attacking opportunities were few and far between, O’Driscoll delivered another magnificent display. The captain’s defence was unyielding yet again, and he came to Ireland’s rescue with an opportunist dropped goal and a try that built up an 11-3 winning lead midway through the second half.
The captain was also in the wars taking hits from Riki Flutey and Armitage, and while both were late, Flutey was committed to the challenge and only Armitage’s was worthy of a penalty. Still, there was more of the indiscipline that has dogged England throughout the championship as both Phil Vickery and substitute Danny Care were dispatched to the bin making it a total of 10 yellow cards in the last four games on Johnson’s watch.
Apart from one line-out glitch which led to a Toby Flood penalty, O’Connell confirmed his current standing as Europe’s form forward. He carried, he cajoled and he inspired, and Stephen Ferris, Jamie Heaslip and John Hayes, equalling Malcolm O’Kelly’s record of 92 caps, weren’t too far behind in the merit stakes.
In truth, the opening half was probably the worst 40 minutes of the championship. England tackled with ferocity, but with O’Gara struggling, Ireland appeared to lack the combination to the lock. As the stodge thickened, both teams resorted to the long kick downfield – it was rugby without ambition, the heady events of 2007 already a distant memory.
O’Gara missed a couple of penalties, Tommy Bowe was just beaten to a clever Tomas O’Leary kick, and during one of England’s rare progressive spells, O’Driscoll got back to make a fine tackle on Nick Kennedy.
The out-half was at last on target on the half-hour, and Ireland surged again with another series of rumbles, but with the defence stretched following bursts by O’Leary and O’Connell, O’Gara blew the chance with a clueless kick.
Irish frustration was compounded when he hit the post with another attempt early in the second half, however, when O’Leary was impeded at a ruck with the penalty guaranteed, O’Driscoll took dead aim and his drop goal sailed between the posts.
Then incessant pressure culminated appropriately enough in O’Driscoll diving over from close range after 57 minutes to push the lead out to 11-3. Although Johnson sent in his reinforcements after an Armitage penalty, Ireland were very much in control, and following Care’s reckless shoulder charge on Marcus Horan, O’Gara found his kicking boots with a second penalty to make it 14-6.
At that stage, you would have expected Ireland to pull away, but England had the final say when Goode threaded a kick through for Armitage. If those closing seconds were agony, the final whistle failed to bring ecstasy. That can wait for another day – maybe in Cardiff in three weeks’ time.
30 mins O’Gara pen, 3-0 38 mins Flood pen, 3-3 45 mins O’Driscoll drp gl, 6-3 57 mins O’Driscoll try, 11-3 65 mins Armitage pen, 11-6 71 mins O’Gara pen, 14-6 79 mins Armitage try, Goode con, 14-13