England reach base camp

England.......... 28 Ireland 15
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The Independent Online
Even amid the unconfined joy of a championship they came not to expect, there is an uncomfortable truth for England which has nothing to do with their still-limited vision of the game - that in all logic they should bestride Five Nations rugby year by year.

This is neither arrogance nor presumption, and anyway logic is a frequent absentee from this annual jamboree. Thank goodness for that. But in the very moment of triumph Jack Rowell identified the need to exploit England's "huge rugby-playing population" and if it ever happened as he wishes there would never again be the heartaches - and bellyaching - that have attended this season.

Indeed if it ever happened, the manager's task would be made unrecognisably easy. The uncertain mix-and-match which has characterised English selection, for instance, would be a thing of the past. Never again, Rowell ventures, would England have to endure a rebuilding period such as the one which has occasionally appeared to give him more frustration than pleasure.

This has more to do with the criticism his team, and more particularly Rowell himself, have had to endure for the way they play, or the way he has them play. In which case, doubtless he was pleased to hear the following words of encouragement from Syd Millar, the Irish Rugby Football Union president: "There has been criticism of England and the manner they play but at international level it doesn't matter a stuff how you play as long as you bloody well win."

Millar may be an eminent former Lions player and coach but what is true for Ireland is not necessarily true for England. Still, if English resources really were exploited, beating Ireland - and Wales and Scotland for that matter, though France might be a problem - would become more predictable than it already is.

Somehow predictability would be rather appropriate. On this occasion England began by striving - at least trying to match deeds to words - to be less predictable than they had been in beating Scotland, not because they had been widely lambasted for doing so then but because they know they can and ought to be playing more attractive rugby than that. But they have a hiatus at half-back and predictably - that word again - it did not work.

It was the game's fascination and England's encouragement that they successfully changed tactics on the hoof in order to win it. Less encouraging was that they needed to revert to more familiar type in order to do so. The problem was practical: that the bold ambition of running rugby actually got them nowhere, or at any rate no further than the arms of Irish tacklers.

So Ireland had their noses in front from David Humphreys's drop goal 81 seconds into the game and it was not until an hour had elapsed that Paul Grayson added a drop goal to his first five penalties to edge England in front at last.

In the meantime Will Carling's final Twickenham appearance as England's captain had had a faintly ignominious ending when he was carried off with an ankle injury, at which point the captaincy and more particularly the strategy passed across to Dean Richards.

The rest can be well imagined, certainly by anyone familiar with Richards's Leicester or the England he guided to their Murrayfield victory. Ireland failed to score in the 45 minutes that remained when Carling departed and had the strength sapped from them by the physical force of the English forwards' mauling game.

Simon Mason had kicked all four of his penalty opportunities but from this turning point he never had another. England had most of the territory and most of the ball and even ended up re-expanding their rugby in the closing minutes so well that Jon Sleightholme gave the watching 78,000 the precious gift of a glorious try, a thing of beauty not just for its rarity value.

If nothing else, Grayson's behind-the-back pass and the excellent angle of Sleightholme's diagonal run showed it could be done.

In securing a 19th English Triple Crown, Carling's team therefore had a Plan C as well as Plans A and B and if they are achieving tactical or strategic awareness to go with the evident and considerable potential of many of the players, that is as much as Rowell could for now demand. "If England can do what they've done this year when they've been at their most vulnerable for eight years, that shows the strength of English rugby," he said.

From here, then, it presumably is onward and upward and if Rowell thinks he still has problems - which he does, though they are fewer than they were - the Irish would be glad to share them. The wooden spoon is a suitable implement with which to eat the thin gruel of a championship that has been undeniably disappointing after the careless optimism at its outset.

At Twickenham the Irish forwards were exposed not in attitude or even skill but in straight physical terms. England were bigger and stronger and once Richards had got hold of them they used this to their advantage. This meant that collectively Ireland were steadily diminished so that what consolation there was was individual, in the bright prospect laid out by such as Humphreys and the unerring Mason.

That progress has been made under the coaching regime of Murray Kidd and John Mitchell, Ireland's New Zealand partnership, was evident in Irish competitiveness and fitness - the latter no small achievement given the condition of many of the players when they came in in September. The coaches' fate will be decided by the Irish Rugby Union in May after their one-season contract ends.

"We really feel we are moving in the right direction," Kidd said - which is roughly what Rowell has been saying about England all season. Now, perhaps, people will start to believe him. The Five Nations' committee evidently did not, because they sent their trophy to Cardiff and had to hurry it up the M4 to present to the ex-captain on Saturday night after the French had failed to oblige.

"This team has already achieved something special in winning the championship at such an early stage," Carling said. "That's a great, great achievement and I feel very privileged to be part of it." The feeling, as he returns limping to the ranks, is entirely mutual.

ENGLAND: M Catt; J Sleightholme, J Guscott (Bath), W Carling (Harlequins, capt), R Underwood (Leicester); P Grayson, M Dawson (Northampton); G Rowntree (Leicester), M Regan (Bristol), J Leonard (Harlequins), M Johnson (Leicester), G Archer (Bristol), B Clarke (Bath), D Richards (Leicester), L Dallaglio (Wasps). Replacement: P de Glanville (Bath) for Carling, 35. Temporary substitute: T Rodber (Northampton) for Dallaglio, 28-30.

IRELAND: S Mason (Orrell); S Geoghegan (Bath), M Field (Malone), J Bell (Northampton), 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 (Constitution), J Davidson (Dungannon), D Corkery (Constitution), V Costello (St Mary's College), D McBride (Malone). Replacement: M McCall (Bangor) for Field, 19.

Referee: E Murray (Scotland).

Five Nations Table

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

RESULTS: 20 January: France 15 England 12; Ireland 10, Scotland 16. 3 February: England 21 Wales 15; Scotland 19 France 14. 17 February: France 45 Ireland 10; Wales 14 Scotland 16. 2 March: Ireland 30 Wales 17; Scotland 9 England 18. 16 March: England 28 Ireland 15; Wales 16 France 15.