Finishing touch turns up at last

Tony Underwood finds that England have made important progress in the right direction in winning the Five Nations' Championship
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The Independent Online
A match to savour then for the "new" Twickenham. A solitary try perhaps, but much to cheer the soul throughout. In previous games this season pre-match talk and high hopes were much the same but on Saturday there were two new elements that seemed to make all the difference.

Firstly, the groundwork was done up front, where the gain line was broken and quicker ball delivered. Secondly, the belief and commitment to run the ball ran throughout the side. Instead of one or two individuals biting the bullet whilst others spectated, support was pretty much instant and in numbers. This, among other things, left Matt Dawson with options at the tap penalties and Mike Catt possibilities on the counter-attack. And what a difference it made.

Unfortunately the first half was littered with mistakes and both sides proved generous at conceding penalties in goal-kicking positions. It was at this point that Dean Richards, captain in the absence of Will Carling, made the game his own for 20 minutes. Ireland were thriving in the tackle situations so Richards took this option away from them. With line-out possession secure through Martin Johnson and Garath Archer, Richards began to marshall driving mauls whenever and wherever he wished.

Great expanses of ground were covered but more important was the effect on the Irish. Deprived of the ball for so long you could almost see their hopes sap away. This is where England won the game.

Lesser sides would have crumbled but credit to the Irish who withstood the onslaught so well, allowing England just one try and a memorable one at that. Hard work off the ball is a hallmark of good wing play and provided Jon Sleightholme with the opportunity. His speed and line of running did the rest. You do not forget your first try for England, or how you celebrate it! Jack Rowell was critical of the lack of quality wingers in the country at the start of the season. A lot of them would dispute that but it was Sleightholme who was given the opportunity. He has taken it well and I know I will have my work cut out to regain my place next season. It is a battle I look forward to.

For Will Carling the battles on the pitch have unfortunately ended for this season. Until he went off the day was his, from the moment he ran on to the pitch in splendid isolation to the moment he was carried off. At every opportunity he was taking the game to the Irish at his vintage best. It was a fitting end to his reign as captain. Off the pitch his captaincy was most effective, ringing the changes that have seen England become the force it is. The sea change in attitudes to both the physical and mental sides of the game is largely due to him. He leaves a huge vacuum.

The record books will show England as Five Nations' champions, and winners of the Calcutta Cup, Millennium Cup and Triple Crown. Not a bad haul, but for English supporters success like this has come to be expected. Prior to 1990 England's success was so paltry a championship could only be hoped for in each generation. However, in the last seven years England have dominated the championship losing just five matches, while on the whole providing much to entertain.

However, this was only possible because of the groundwork done in the late Eighties to provide a side whose nucleus carried England to its myriad successes.That nucleus has pretty much gone, and this transition season was always going to be difficult, as all the other sides have found. Yet despite this a championship was won. For a side building its foundations you cannot get a better bedrock - and all in such clinical fashion. Pilloried and berated for much of the season, you have to admire them for getting the job done. And like all good boxers, England finished the round with a flurry. Relief for the new caps who can at last read purple prose as opposed to poisoned pens.

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