Carling's bittersweet swansong

Five Nations' Championship: Wales hand England the title with victory at the death as Grayson rules with the boot England 28 Ireland 15 Try: Sleightholme 77 Pens: Mason 7, 16, 21, 30 Con: Grayson 77 DG: Humphreys 2 Pens: Grayson 9, 11, 29, 40 46, 68 DG: Grayson 61
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IT IS the infinite capacity for surprise which is the fascination of the Five Nations' championship. With England having to play for most of the match against determined opponents without their captain and holding on grimly in the hope of winning the Triple Crown, they finished with a spectacular display of pyrotechnics and the knowledge that to the mythical crown they had added the tangible reward of the championship.

The sight midway through the second half of their stricken captain, Will Carling, limping up the steps of the West Stand on crutches to join his colleagues on the England bench seemed at the time sadly symbolic of this championship series. So much hype, so little satisfaction.

This was Carling's farewell as England's captain. For eight years, he had led them through thick and thin in good times and in bad, and there had been many more of the former than the latter. But with an entire nation willing him to succeed and hoping that his career as leader would end fittingly in triumph he was carried off on a stretcher, his ankle badly twisted as a result of a bizarre mishap.

With the ball being swatted back and forth and not a soul anywhere near him, Carling collapsed in agony. The yielding turf was to blame and Carling's valedictory performance was cruelly cut short. That his side went on to win without him and gain their second successive championship was of course a great consolation, and that they did so by attempting a game-plan which was infinitely more adventurous than the one they had played a fortnight ago at Murrayfield was hugely to their credit. Following the manner of their victory against Scotland there was always the danger that England would fall between two stools yesterday, by erring on the side of over- caution or taking a risk on reckless adventure.

There were times during a frenzied first half when it seemed as if they had taken the latter course, but in the second half, with Dean Richards at the helm, England took the more pragmatic route to victory.

It is perhaps a sad indictment on the championship, and even on the game itself, that England's success was achieved despite scoring a paltry three tries, two against Wales and a third, which was easily the best, yesterday. Two minutes from the end of the match Jon Sleightholme did what he has for so long threatened to do in this championship, bursting onto Paul Grayson's reverse pass inside the Irish 22 and scoring wide out. With great composure, Grayson completed a mightily successful afternoon, converting from the touchline and finishing with 23 points from six penalties and a drop.

The Irish, who had fallen with such ignominy on their own swords in Paris last month, were ferociously committed up front and although they were forced to yield to the majestic Martin Johnson at the line-out, their spirit kept them going. Indeed, had they possessed a scrum-half approaching international quality they would have kept England within their sights and might have won. Alas, Niall Hogan, apart from unpardonable indiscipline in giving away a couple of crucial penalties, was simply not up to it as a player, which was a shame because his team-mate David Humphreys looked assured at fly-half, his first kick giving Ireland three points from a drop goal two minutes in.

In Simon Morris, the Irish also had a full-back of genuine class, and until the second half, when England tightened the screws, he was having the time of his life. Through his unerring kicking, Ireland kept their noses in front. Four times he punished England's indiscretion with penalties in the first half and fed richly on poorly placed tactical kicks.

If England's strategy in the first half was brave and understandably geared to giving Carling a fitting farewell, it was also unnecessarily generous to the Irish defenders, who fell on everything that went loose. But it was a different tale in the second half, during which England's control was absolute. Their line-out began to function more efficiently, and in contrast to the first half, when Garath Archer's inexperience in the middle was exposed, England were content to keep the ball tight by throwing to Johnson.

Gradually, the heart went out of the Irish, and England began to expand. Lawrence Dallaglio was once again outstanding, both as the front-runner in England's most incisive attacks and also in defence. At half-time, however, England had surely given up all hope of the championship. The game had scarcely slowed to a blur after threatening to hurtle out of England's control for most of the first half. Even Richards, hitherto infallible beneath the high ball, had been forced into a mistake from which Mason kicked his fourth penalty from four attempts.

It was shortly after this that Carling was carried off and replaced by Phil de Glanville, the man whom many see as the successor to the captaincy. At this stage, Ireland were scarcely wasting a ball, which was good, because they weren't seeing much of it. But half-chances such as the one when Hogan, instead of releasing the ball to his left with solid support outside, held on, slipped by them and England grew in strength and confidence. England's victory yesterday and their unexpected success in the championship will in this time of change provide them with immense satisfaction, and for Will Carling the end result, if not the end to his leadership, was exactly as he would have wished it.

England: M Catt (Bath); J Sleightholme (Bath), W Carling (Harlequins, capt), J Guscott (Bath), R Underwood (Leicester), P Grayson (Northampton), M Dawson (Northampton), G Rowntree (Leicester), M Regan (Bristol), J Leonard (Harlequins), M Johnson (Leicester), G Archer (Bristol), B Clarke (Bath), L Dallaglio (Wasps), D Richards (Leicester). Replacement: P de Glanville (Bath) for Carling (35). Temporary replacement: T Rodber (Northampton) for Dallaglio (30-32).

Ireland: S Mason (Orrell); S Geoghegan (Bath), J Bell (Northampton), M Field (Malone), N Woods (Blackrock College), D Humphreys (London Irish), N Hogan (Terenure College, capt), N Popplewell (Newcastle), A Clarke (Northampton), P Wallace (Blackrock College), G Fulcher (Cork Constitution), J Davidson (Dungannon), D Corkery (Cork Constitution), D McBride (Malone), V Costello (St Mary's College). Replacement: M McCall (Bangor) for Field (22).

Referee: E Murray (Scotland).

Final standings

P W D L F A Pts

England 4 3 0 1 79 54 6

Scotland 4 3 0 1 60 56 6

France 4 2 0 2 89 57 4

Wales 4 1 0 3 62 82 2

Ireland 4 1 0 3 65 106 2