CONSIDERING they are about to be ambushed by the Wallaby line- out, mugged by the Springbok front row and tormented by an All Black back three that may well be the most lavishly gifted attacking force in rugby history, England have so many Lomu-sized problems on their immediate agenda that it seems positively bizarre that they should blow a collective gasket over the piddling misdemeanours of 15 whitewashed Irishmen.
But blow it they did; as the Twickenham faithful dispersed in search of some beer with which to celebrate a fourth consecutive Triple Crown, the national hierarchy went looking for a few green-shirted bogeymen. They found one, too, in the uncompromising shape of David Corkery, who started the game as a common or garden back-row forward but ended it as a late 20th century candidate for Dante's Inferno.
It was not as though Corkery and his countrymen had committed some unforgivable, God-awful crime; unlike four years previously, they did not have the temerity to score more points than their hosts. On this occasion, a pre-match allegation of hoity-toity "arrogance" and the odd vigorous, six-studded assault on an inconveniently placed English body was sufficient to send the red rose blood pressure disappearing through the roof.
England really should not be so thin-skinned about what is, after all, a tough guy's game. If they allow the likes of Corkery, a rough but hugely companionable diamond from Cork, the satisfaction of upsetting the psychological apple cart with a few well-chosen war words and a bunch of Irish fives, heaven knows how they will cope when the Maoris descend on them in Rotorua this summer.
Lawrence Dallaglio, usually the very epitome of professional detachment, became so comprehensively narked by Corkery's nagging, niggling brand of in-your-face confrontationalism that he flatly refused to shake hands with his opposite number at the final whistle. "I was a bit aggrieved," admitted the Irishman. "Rugby is a gentleman's game and it wasn't a particularly gentlemanly way for Lawrence to go about things. To be honest with you, I don't think I did anything to merit such treatment."
Mmmm. Corkery may look like a slightly shop-soiled choirboy and with his soft Munster brogue, he could charm the birds from the trees. But he did pick a prolonged scrap with Martin Johnson early on and there was very definitely a hint of a Kilkenny Kiss on Dallaglio at a fractious set scrummage deep in the final quarter. Nonetheless, there is no such species as the entirely innocent rugby player. "It's not a game for the faint-hearted," pointed out the accused with some legitimacy. "If you don't expect just a bit of rough and tumble, I'm not sure you should be playing the game at all."
If England have a hang-up about the Celtic nations just at the moment, it is rooted in their profound and honestly held belief that they are 40-odd points better than the lot of them. Which they are, of course, assuming there is not a howling wind to level things up as there was at Twickenham on Saturday and provided they are blessed with a sympathetic referee who refuses to allow outpaced opponents to decelerate proceedings to a more manageable speed.
Derek Bevan, a good Welshman from Baglan Bay, is no one's idea of a lap dog and while he tried his damnedest to ensure quick, clean ball for both sides, he was also perfectly prepared to allow the visitors to clear obstructive English forwards out of the road whenever they insisted on beaching themselves on the wrong side of breakdown situations. It was almost like real rugby at times as the pumped-up Irish forwards rucked fiercely for the ball during a fascinating second half of fluctuating fortunes.
"I don't have a problem with boots on bodies when the boots are near the ball," Dallaglio said. "When boots and ball are not in the same proximity, though... well, there you have the issue." Well, it was one of the issues. Corkery exposed the other side of the coin by saying: "Look at our bodies right now and you won't see a single stud mark. Why? Because we didn't lay around on the wrong side. I imagine you'll see one or two marks on the English boys, however, and they know full well why they're there." You can almost hear those Maoris chuckling into their hakas.
They will not be laughing at the thought of facing an inspired English back division, though. Mike Catt may not have been a storming success - or, indeed, a success of any description - in the unfamiliar surroundings of the right wing and Jeremy Guscott may have suffered the numbing embarrassment of being caught by Victor Costello, the former shot-putter from the Irish back row, as he glided into open water a minute from the final whistle. ("Jerry was running into the wind," said Clive Woodward, the English coach, by way of ironic explanation). For all that, there were some sublime moments.
Matt Perry, Austin Healey and, in particular, Will Greenwood are cutting the mustard with a laser beam right now. Greenwood produced two superlative passes in the heaviest of traffic to create tries for Matt Perry and Catt in the third and 39th minutes respectively and with Neil Back, the human catalyst, buzzing hither and thither like an entire hive of bees, Richard Cockerill was also able to sample the champagne lifestyle with a glory gallop to the line at the end of the first quarter.
Fifty points looked more likely than not, for Ireland could draw only on Denis Hickie's simple interception try as they retired panting to the dressing-room for their half-time breather. Things looked bleaker still within a minute of the restart when Mark McCall, purveyor of two try-saving tackles on the exasperated Guscott, was carried unconscious from the field following a sickening clash of heads with Eric Elwood.
Yet there was something invigoratingly cussed about the Irish on this occasion and Hickie's second try, wittily created by Elwood with a back- handed flip pass, gave them a glimmer. Suddenly, Keith Wood and Paul Wallace were in Lions mode and Paddy Johns was operating at such a rarified pitch that Johnson had to rediscover his finest form just to live with him.
Phil de Glanville, his appearance as a substitute rather overshadowed by the later introduction of Jon Wilkinson for his first cap, broke the game once and for all with a close-range scramble 16 minutes from time, but the quality of the Irish second-half performance had the smack of moral victory about it.
"They're not the sort of victories we want, though," said Corkery, a self-confessed hater of defeat who, nevertheless, must be well used to the bitter flavour of failure as an Irishman playing out of Bristol. "It was a good performance but, ultimately, a worthless one." When Dallaglio reads those words, he will probably forget his frustrations and start counting his blessings instead.
ENGLAND: M Perry (Bath); M Catt (Bath), J Guscott (Bath), W Greenwood (Leicester), A Healey (Leicester); P Grayson (Northampton), M Dawson (Northampton); J Leonard (Harlequins), R Cockerill (Leicester), D Garforth (Leicester), M Johnson (Leicester), G Archer (Newcastle), L Dallaglio (Wasps, capt), A Diprose (Saracens), N Back (Leicester). Replacements: P de Glanville (Bath) for Greenwood, 52; D Grewcock (Saracens) for Archer, 53; J Wilkinson (Newcastle) for Catt, 78.
IRELAND: C Clarke (Terenure); R Wallace (Saracens), K Maggs (Bristol), M McCall (London Irish), D Hickie (St Mary's College); E Elwood (Galwegians), C McGuinness (St Mary's College); R Corrigan (Greystones), K Wood (Harlequins, capt), P Wallace (Saracens), P Johns (Saracens), M O'Kelly (London Irish), D Corkery (Bristol), V Costello (St Mary's College), A Ward (Ballynahinch). Replacements: K Keane (Garryowen) for McCall, 44; D Humphreys (London Irish) for Clarke, 69.
Referee: D Bevan (Wales).