I played England in Twickenham four or five times. The dressing rooms in the old stand were fairly Spartan. The facilities weren’t great. They had these dribbly showers that were, at best, lukewarm. But they did have these magnificent baths where you could soak your wounds and your battered body. Nobody used the toilets because England had already kicked the shit out of you. No matter what you do, or how you play against England, it is always the most physical game in the Championship.
This England team have nothing yet. They matched Ireland in every department including the will to win. How do you explain Ireland’s superiority and yet there was only a one-point margin between the sides?
Aristotle said “character is that which reveals moral purpose. Exposing the class of things a man either chooses or avoids.” Ireland’s character, their tenacity of purpose and unshakeable will to win got them through this dreadful game of rugby. It was a true test.
At half-time, something hit me – a realisation that what had gone on before, against France and Italy, did not apply in this particular game. Ireland beat France and Italy because they had superior conditioning, were much stronger in the last 20 and had a greater mental capacity to capitalise on any chances that came their way. That wasn’t going to be the case against the happy and glorious lot from across the pond.
They had the same physical conditioning, they went toe-to-toe for 80 minutes with less men on the park at vital times in the match. They, too, had an indomitable will, not just to cause an upset but to win this bloody match for themselves. And it showed as they scored a truly excellent try at the death. This England team was still full of juice and even though they hadn’t got a huge amount to offer offensively, by God they were game. So in the oft used term, Ireland would have to be patient, forget about it, Job had left the building. This one was down to intestinal fortitude and ability to wear down and close out.
I would say Ireland, at half-time, even though they dominated the first half, would have been a little bit apprehensive. Worry compounds a situation. Thinking opens up new avenues but Ireland stuck to what they had been doing in the first half. No question, they upped their intensity levels. But England matched them.How did England stay in the match for so long when they had only two line breaks of note in the entire match? Firstly they were able to control the pace of the game without the ball and defensively, they crowded Ireland’s midfield and were half a yard off all day. Even Moses couldn’t part the English defence. One of the effects it had on Ireland was that Ronan O’Gara had one of his least assured games in a long, long time. The number 10 channel was a suffocating and claustrophobic vacuum and Joe Worsley looked like he was part of the Two Rons.
So, with O’Gara playing like a shiver looking for a spine to run up, somebody had to take control. O’Leary had a good game and on occasion his wide breaks made England think again.
O’Driscoll knew what was going on inside him and the fact that he had two attempted drop-goals meant that he knew, at that stage, that he could not rely on O’Gara getting his penalties. One went over, one didn’t. Thirty-three per cent isn’t going to help you in the kicking stakes particularly in tight matches like these. When Ireland should have been out of sight, it was O’Gara’s fallibility on this day that kept them in it.
They say that two wrongs don’t make a right. Try three. England’s indiscipline was flagged well before this match took place. It is incredulous that professional players could be so stupid. Certainly, a lot of the penalties they conceded were the result of pressure being applied but some of them did not have to be conceded at all. The penalty count must have been two to one against and you could see Martin Johnson’s frustration when Danny Care gave away the ludicrous penalty for a cheap hit on Marcus Horan.
Ireland’s leadership, through O’Connell and O’Driscoll, was at vital times decisive. England continued to suffer from a leadership deficit. The only time Steve Borthwick goes forward is to toss the coin. While England had plenty of possession, and were able to retain it, nobody had the smarts or the footballing nous to make a decisive play. England’s executive 8-9-10-15, the guys entrusted to execute England’s game plan were just short of where they needed to be. The likelihood is that they will change half-backs again.
Ireland’s back three were far superior, in every respect, to England’s although Delon Armitage was sound in defence. Credit where it is due: Tommy Bowe had an excellent outing. Kearney, once again, was spectacular in the air and Luke Fitzgerald’s reading and decisive tackling is a boon.
The back rows cancelled each other out though it was down to discipline and nerve. Ireland crucially held theirs. But it was a dreadfully uninteresting and poor quality Test match. I felt I was watching Fischer and Spassky. Ireland prevailed, history is always written by the winner and they will realise that getting through this game will have fortified them to a significant degree. Despite the fact that Scotland are even worse than England, it will be no less hard.