Rugby Union: England come up smelling of roses

Ireland 15 England 27 Penalties: Humphreys 5 Tries: Perry, Rodber Conversion: Wilkinson Penalties: Wilkinson 4 Drop goal: Grayson Half-time: 9-11 Attendance: 49,000
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THE BUOYANT Irish poured into Lansdowne Road expecting nothing less than the earth. Seduced by a near-miss against France and a half- decent victory over the Welsh, they anticipated an intense oval-ball equivalent of Hemingway's corrida or Mailer's boxing ring, with a touch of battlefield heroism thrown in for added dramatic effect. What they got was short change, short shrift and a severe smack in the chops from an England team who removed the "bull" from John Bull by laying down a few significant markers for this autumn's World Cup.

Warren Gatland, a chastened Irish coach, described Lawrence Dallaglio's formidably muscular visitors as "one of the very best outfits in international rugby", adding that come the tussle for the Webb Ellis Trophy in October, they would be a "top-four contender at least". Gatland's captain, Paddy Johns, agreed wholeheartedly, readily acknowledging his frustration at his side's inability to win even a pauper's share of meaningful possession. England were, he agreed, "very good winners indeed."

But the most incisive contribution to the the after-match wake came from Willie Anderson, the former Irish warrior chieftain who had so famously led a mass trespass on the All Black Haka at the same Dublin venue a decade previously. "We shouldn't moan too much about the referee and his lack of continuity," he muttered as he reached for another consoling glass of you know what. "To be sure, if there had been any continuity, we'd have lost by 50."

And so another emerald-tinted dream disappeared into the ether. It took Johns and his vaunted green-shirted pack rather less time than it takes to pour a proper pint to realise that Dallaglio, Martin Johnson and company were not for the taking and while some strangely hesitant English finishing allowed the Irish a lengthy stay of execution - quite how Jeremy Guscott and Dan Luger managed to fluff up one walk-in opportunity deep in the final quarter will forever remain a mystery - there was such iron authority about the rest of the red rose game that the destination of the championship points was never a matter for serious debate.

As skipper, Dallaglio was entitled to a dozen bouquets for every misplaced brickbat he received in the aftermath of his side's spluttering Calcutta Cup misfire at Twickenham last month. His lean, lightly stitched and heavily bruised features revealed no trace of self-satisfaction - the triumphant smile he allowed himself in victory over South Africa at Twickenham in December will not be repeated unless and until England beat New Zealand in a World Cup pool match of epic potential in the second week of October - but he would have been less than human had he not spent Saturday night relishing his next meeting with those critics wanted him thrown out on his cauliflower ear.

Kyran Bracken, Matt Perry, Tim Rodber and the astonishingly self-assured Jonny Wilkinson all scaled the heights as the Irish fumbled around in the foothills, but Dallaglio's was the defining performance. He did the lot, bless him: he carried the ball for miles, battened down the hatches at ruck and maul, wrapped up the Irish backs with shuddering turn-over tackles, put in a try-saving hit on Conor O'Shea to repulse the one dangerous emerald uprising of the afternoon and even produced the touch-finder of the day, a raking 45-metre Grant Fox job that sent Johns and his pack trudging miserably back into their own half as if they were wading through concrete.

"Lawrence is a fantastic player, a fantastic captain and he's done me proud," said Clive Woodward, his tone one of bewildered exasperation at the vitriol hurled at his lieutenant during the course of the previous fortnight. Almost neurotically fearful of an Irish ambush - "Forget the games with New Zealand and South Africa, this was the most pressurised match I've experienced in my time as coach," he confessed - Woodward had gambled his reputation and his future on a mid-campaign realignment. If everything came up smelling of red roses, Dallaglio's full-time move to No 8 bore the sweetest scent of all.

Of course, the Irish made life easier than it might otherwise have been by ignoring the instinctive footballing ability of Eric Miller for all but 15 minutes of the encounter; indeed, when the Lion of Terenure finally made it on to the paddock, he gave England more to ponder in the space of 90 seconds than Victor Costello had managed in well over an hour.

Privately, the visiting camp raised a glass to Costello's selection as soon as they received confirmation of the team in mid-week. They knew then that, provided they met fire with fire, the likelihood of their being out-manoeuvred was more remote anything they might find in the wilds of Connemara.

For all that, it took England the best part of a half to come to terms with both the staccato whistling of Paddy O'Brien and the surprising extent of their own superiority. Perry's incisive finish on 35 minutes, the result of some hard running from Rodber and an exquisite Wilkinson pass amid the ultra-heavy traffic of the Irish midfield, signalled a short, sharp period of attacking abandon. It realised a quality drop goal from Paul Grayson but no more, thanks to some loose handling and the odd prop forward suffering from delusions of Guscott-style grandeur.

Three Wilkinson penalties in the space of 12 second-half minutes took England out of the stalls and into the box circle at 20-12 and although David Humphreys landed his fifth successful kick with 11 minutes left on the clock, aggressive defending and some crafty back-row know-how ensured there would be no late travesty of sporting justice. As it happened, Johnson and Rodber were sufficiently energetic to break out of the confines of the second-row boilerhouse and manufacture a second try in injury time. It was rather less than they deserved, but worth having all the same.

At the risk of overdoing the sympathy bit, you have to feel sorry for Johnson. Once again, he was yellow-carded (he will soon have enough of the things to start up a poker school) and O'Brien's after-match admission that his decision had been harsh was no great comfort to the Leicester captain.

Apparently, Johnson was whistled for a vaguely illicit shoulder charge, which was a bit rich considering the wholly calculated assault perpetrated on Richard Hill by a black-helmeted Irish forward at precisely the same moment. Poor old Johnno. The poor petal was be feeling quite put-upon.

Still, O'Brien can take due credit for the fact that there was little or nothing in the way of overt hostility between the two packs. Richard Cockerill needed three stitches in the back of his head but an inspection of the match video satisfied the England camp that nothing grossly untoward had taken place.

"It's a man's game, you know," grinned Cockerill as he ambled towards the banquet with bottle in hand. True. It was men against boys on Saturday and sure enough, the men won.

Scorers: Ireland Penalties: Humphreys 5. England Tries: Perry, Rodber; Conversion: Wilkinson; Penalties: Wilkinson 4; Drop goal: Grayson.

IRELAND: C O'Shea; J Bishop (both London Irish), K Maggs (Bath), R Henderson (Wasps), G Dempsey (Terenure College); D Humphreys (Dungannon), C McGuinness (St Mary's College); P Clohessy (Young Munster), K Wood (Harlequins), P Wallace, P Johns (both Saracens, capt), J Davidson (Castres), D O'Cuinneagain (Sale), V Costello (St Mary's College), A Ward (Ballynahinch). Replacements: E Miller (Terenure College) for Costello, 65; J Fitzpatrick (Dungannon) for Clohessy, 66.

ENGLAND: M Perry (Bath); D Rees (Sale), J Guscott (Bath), J Wilkinson (Newcastle), D Luger (Harlequins); P Grayson (Northampton), K Bracken (Saracens); J Leonard (Harlequins), R Cockerill, D Garforth, M Johnson (all Leicester), T Rodber (Northampton), R Hill (Saracens), L Dallaglio (Wasps, capt), N Back (Leicester).

Referee: P O'Brien (New Zealand).

n England's hooker, Richard Cockerill, has rejected suggestions from Ireland that he had abused spectators at Lansdowne Road. After England's victory, Cockerill ran down the touch-line giving what he called a "routine victory gesture".