Inch by inch. Yard by yard. Calloused hand by calloused hand. If Ireland do win this championship, if they do lay claim finally to the Grand Slam in three weeks, they’ll have done it the hard way. They came through here by a single, solitary point in the end, a lone tick of the scoreboard that said more about their inefficiency than it did about their superiority. The final score said 14-13, a lie in itself as Ireland were at least a score the better side. But the oldest truism in the book still stands – if you don’t put them away, there’s always a chance of the empire striking back.
This wasn’t about a song or a flag or a historical grudge, at least no more than it usually is. Wales’s defeat in Paris on Friday night defined Ireland’s task absolutely and shone a megawatt light on their ambitions. Any lingering thought that facing England was about anything other than a first championship for a quarter of a century was gone now and the questions left to pose to Declan Kidney and his side weren’t complex. Simply put, if not now for Ireland, then when? If not here, then where?
They answered well, certainly better than they often have in the past when public opinion has slipped the lead of favouritism into the boxing glove and had Ronan O’Gara been what he can be, this would have been a much more emphatic statement. But four missed kicks meant this ended up a lot closer than it should have, even if Kidney was quick to speak up for his out-half afterwards.
“How much courage did it take to stand up and hit that last one today? We do have a back-up plan for if he’s having a bad day but part of that plan is my belief in Ronan. If things are going over, it’s an easy game but it’s when they’re not going your way that you have to have the courage to keep putting in your tackles and keep doing your work. He stood up when they were coming down his channel time after time and you cannot coach that kind of thing. I thought he showed huge courage today.”
The yards were hard and each forward step must have felt like it was up a sand dune. England tackled like men with a grievance, or at least men who didn’t want to face a coach with a grievance when they got back into the dressing room. Ireland did the same, only perhaps not as often since they had more of the ball. The result was that collision begat collision and bottleneck begat bottleneck and in the absence of room to breathe, both teams turned their back three into kicking robots.
It made for drab stuff. At one point in the first half, there was a seemingly interminable bout of kick tennis that wouldn’t have been out of place at a Tuesday night Junior B foot-passing drill. That it ultimately ended with a flash of rare quality from the outside of Ronan O’Gara’s right boot made it no less tiresome to sit through. Nor, for that matter, did it lead to anything tangible and the sides still sat scoreless a half an hour in.
O’Gara had what can politely be termed One Of Those Days. Out of hand, he was patchy. Off the ground, he was wayward. The four misses meant that he wasn’t even the highest scoring Irishman on the pitch and, though Kidney is right that it took a lot for him to man up to the last of his kicks, it was this leaking away of scoring chances that kept England in the game. Ireland led the territory and possession stats, keeping England out of their 22 for whole swathes of both halves. And yet they were only five points up with 15 minutes to go.
Those five points were Brian O’Driscoll’s, his try coming at the end of a 10-minute spell in the second half when he seemed to decide to strap the game to his shoulders and make his own stand, initially flicking a drop goal to put Ireland 6-3 up. It set up the one true period of Irish dominance, with England drawing the first of the yellow cards out of referee Craig Joubert as Phil Vickery took the slow walk to the bin. England’s try-line stand could only last so long and eventually O’Driscoll burrowed over. But it only bought an 11-3 lead and when Delon Armitage hoofed over a 40-yarder on 65 minutes, there was but a score in it.
In the end O’Gara’s late penalty loosened the Irish ties and opened their top buttons. Its importance became clear five minutes later when Armitage scooted over to touch down Andy Goode’s through kick, leaving Ireland just a point up with less than a minute left.
They held out. Only just, but they held out. And that’s enough for now.