James Lawton: O'Driscoll tramples over green shoots of England
For Johnson, there is an urgent need to review the preparation for this game in Dublin
Monday 21 March 2011
Brian O'Driscoll was not just the hammer of England, again, he was the supreme reproach. He showed once more the essential element English rugby, for all its relative wealth and huge player population, lacks so painfully.
It is the true gravitas of a man both beautifully talented and supremely competitive. Under his sublime and ferocious prompting, Ireland not only demolished England but put their progress this season into the most alarming perspective.
Another problem was that the disparity of personality and self-belief in the pygmy strides of England and the consuming passion of the Irish was so huge you had to conclude that the brilliance of O'Driscoll was more the symbol than the cause.
No team would welcome the absence of such an enduringly dynamic player but you had to believe that with or without him Ireland would still have rolled over a team whose green shoots of recovery – if you'll forgive the expression – were not so much trampled upon as individually removed at the new Lansdowne Road.
It meant that you could have put on a blindfold and picked up a pin, stabbed it into the Irish team-sheet and been near certain of coming up with a player physically, emotionally and intellectually superior to his opposite number.
The splendid young flanker Tom Wood might just have prevented a complete whitewash of the English, but elsewhere the divide was embarrassing. Irishmen like Paul O'Connell, David Wallace, Mike Ross, Donncha O'Callaghan and, not least, the controversial selection, Jonathan Sexton, not only defined players on their game – as opposed to such as Ben Youngs and Toby Flood, who were profoundly off it – but also those with an easy ability to climb into another dimension.
This posed a question that has never been far from the surface of English rugby union since the passing of a generation of competitors such as the once-again embattled manager Martin Johnson, Lawrence Dallaglio, Richard Hill and Jason Robinson. Where did all the force, the self-belief go? What happened to the capacity to build players, and above all a team, who suggested they might just able to play by more than mere numbers?
There were times on Saturday when those qualities, which formed an avalanche at the old Lansdowne Road en route to the 2003 World Cup triumph, seemed not only to belong to the early part of another decade but an utterly vanished empire.
Especially disappointing was the implosion, hopefully temporary, of the English player who above all others had suggested to us most strongly that he had at least some of the swagger and the composure of the team who conquered the world.
Ben Youngs cannot have been encouraged by the instant dominance of the largely unsung front row of the Irish pack, but that soon enough seemed an inadequate excuse for a near total loss of nerve.
When he was first sent to the sin-bin, then yanked off by Johnson, for his witless throwing-away of the ball at the prospect of a quick Irish line-out, it was a shocking statement by Johnson that the young player who had generated so much hope for the future had become unfit for purpose in the team's most visceral challenge.
However much Ireland banged on about finding themselves, England could not escape the charge that they had become as lost as Hansel and Gretel. There was, though, no way out of a green forest in this story – nor a wicked witch.
Ireland didn't cast a spell. They were simply able to rise up and state the best of themselves – and exploit the ambience created by all the early evidence that they had too much will and too much creativity to be contained by Grand Slam candidates on whom even the most basic expectations were clearly an impossible burden.
When a shell-shocked Flood again gave way to Jonny Wilkinson, the sense of regression, of dwindling horizons, could hardly have been more oppressive. It can only be relieved by evidence that England have the resilience to grow strong at this shattered place.
For the most determined of optimists there was perhaps a little encouragement in the widespread English candour about the scale of their failure. Stand-in captain Nick Easter rejected anything that carried even a hint of a consoling platitude. His expression could only have been bleaker had he just mislaid a winning lottery ticket. His central point was impeccable: every English player had to go home and review his performance – and his attitude. In this game, it had been redolent with defeatism.
For Johnson there is certainly an urgent need to review the preparation for this game from both a coaching and a playing perspective. Players will always have to seize their moments but then Johnson and his cadre of coaches can hardly run away from their responsibilities.
It is one thing to state the time-worn imperatives of how you handle the most threatening situations. The real trick is creating a climate of belief, a powerful sense that a team goes in with some viable winning options. The brutal truth was that only one team had a coherent idea of how to win a match so important to pre-World Cup psychology.
With Ireland, there are never guarantees in the great tournament. One day they are brilliant, the next they search in vain for the performance to match their talent.
Their potential redemption, though, is never far from hand. It lies in the ability of someone like O'Driscoll to illuminate every corner of his team's effort. In England, the failure to produce such a world figure continues to be the great betrayal of all the resources, all the players.
This has rarely been so apparent as at the moment when Youngs left the field, humiliated, dismayed by the size of the challenge that had overwhelmed him. It made you wonder what happened to the scrum- half who fashioned a moment of unforgettable creativity in the shadow of his own posts against Australia at Twickenham last autumn.
Hopefully, it wasn't just another false dawn for the team who so briefly grasped the way to beat the world.
* Brian O'Driscoll's try made him the highest try scorer in Six/Five Nations history, beating Ian Smith's 78-year record
25 tries: Brian O'Driscoll (Ireland)
24: Ian Smith (Scotland)
22: Shane Williams (Wales)
18: Gareth Edwards (Wales)
18: Cyril Lowe (England)
18: Rory Underwood (England)
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