Rugby Union / Five Nations' Championship: England getting their priorities in a twist: Ireland's good losers end up winners while Wales are one step away from first Grand Slam since 1978

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SUDDENLY England look, to put it politely, knackered and the very idea that 11 of those who were driven to distraction as well as defeat by Ireland have to rouse themselves for this Saturday's cup quarter-final says it all. With the season three-quarters through but the Five Nations' Championship only half- way, these boys look as if they are on their last legs.

Which means that after all it is not so sudden, but rather a cumulative process - against which Geoff Cooke, the England manager, has been persistently warning. There is a fundamental decision to be made here about what is of paramount importance in English rugby. With Twickenham's new east stand just built and the even newer west stand about to be built, simple economics dictate that for the Rugby Football Union it has to be the national team.

For all that, there were no excuses for England, merely a myriad explanations of which the above is an obvious one. The only difference between the Irish game at Twickenham, which they lost by one point, and the Scottish game at Murrayfield, which they won by one, was that this time England did not get away with their physical and, more disturbingly, mental inertia.

Remembering that even in the days of the 1991 World Cup final team, when they were replete with hardened veterans, England were susceptible to disruptive sides playing at the acme of their form, perhaps it should not surprise us that they are finding it next to impossible when they are trying to assimilate a whole new generation.

'If we knew the answer, we would have won,' Cooke said. As it happens, he has a fair idea of the answer (though not yet the solution) and the evidence of Murrayfield and Twickenham indicates that it will take a while for a group of players with formidable talent actually to fulfil it.

Meanwhile, confidence dips, victories - let alone tries, which have now dried up altogether - become scarcer and confidence dips some more. This is a vicious circle the now-resurgent Welsh know all about. So, for that matter, do the indomitable Irish and when Michael Bradley, their captain, insisted that his side were on the brink of something significant it was not after all wishful thinking.

They duly hammered into England on Saturday with a rare fanaticism and the wail of a banshee that put one in mind of nothing more than what they had already done to England once, 11 months ago. But that was Lansdowne Road and this was Twickenham, where England had not lost a Five Nations match since 1988 and where most recently they beat the All Blacks with much the same cussed, disruptive determination with which the Irish beat England.

'I don't want to take anything away from Ireland but, the way the game is played now, it's easier to set out your stall to stop oppositions,' Cooke said. 'We did it against New Zealand.' If this was not a complaint against Ireland's supposed negativity, it was certainly a description of it. But for England even to insinuate that opposition tactics are questionable is the sheerest blarney when you have a team representing a rugby-playing population of 12,500 taking on one representing 375,000.

Alas for England, these figures, courtesy of the Guinness Rugby Union Fact Book, placed the onus squarely on them to accelerate proceedings beyond the pedestrian. They failed so badly that the one piece of decisive incisiveness came instead from Ireland, Simon Geoghegan's try piercing the metaphorical gloom of a game of stultifying mediocrity.

Rob Andrew's long drop-outs became so awfully predictable that when he tried a shorter one he earned the 68,000 crowd's heavily ironic approbation, but it was one such that led to Geoghegan's breakthrough. Francis knocked it down to Johns and Kingston, Bradley, Clohessy, Elwood, Danaher and Wallace all had a hand in the ball's passage.

Field and O'Shea were meanwhile sowing confusion with dummy runs and, with Tony Underwood and Jonathan Callard having drifted too far infield, Geoghegan had just enough room to get outside both. By contrast, England's back play was so unwontedly hesitant - the passing too laboured, the pace too slow and the running indecisive and diagonal - that, no matter how big or numerous the overlap, it meant nothing.

At the same time they bogged themselves down in a game of aerial ping-pong which induced a slow hand-clap but perfectly suited Ireland, and somehow contrived to combine tactical predictablity and incoherence which was readily containable and wasteful. For example, with continuity eschewed, Neil Back became an anonymous, peripheral figure - an accusation you could never level when he plays in the Leicester back row.

Eric Elwood converted the try from the touchline and, after missing an early sighter, landed his two penalties, the latter a dubious award against Andrew when the French referee could equally well have penalised Geoghegan. For England, Callard kicked only four from eight and experienced the mortification of striking the upright with two of his misses. Hero at Murrayfield; villain here? Not quite. 'We lost this as a team,' Will Carling, England's captain, rightly insisted.

Nevertheless, Callard's misfortune did demonstrate the excruciating margin between victory and defeat, and amid the frenzied, disbelieving English retrospection it could all too easily have been forgotten what this result does for Irish rugby - which by extension means international rugby in general.

'We aren't the top sport; we never will be,' Noel Murphy, the Irish manager, said in that wistful way of his. 'Unfortunately now, whether you like it or not, you have to win at international level to get the people to respect you and understand you. It's no good being a good loser - and we've been good losers down the years.'

This is what used to be said about England in the awful era when Rory Underwood, 10 years an international, came into the team. But let us not get carried away: a one-point defeat does not represent a return to the bad old days and there is such an abundance of talent in English rugby, indeed in this England team, that it is only a question of time. How about the '95 World Cup?

England: Penalties Callard 4. Ireland: Try Geoghegan; Conversion Elwood; Penalties Elwood 2.

ENGLAND: J Callard (Bath); T Underwood (Leicester), W Carling (Harlequins, capt), P de Glanville (Bath), R Underwood (Leicester); R Andrew (Wasps), K Bracken (Bristol); J Leonard, B Moore (Harlequins), V Ubogu (Bath), M Johnson (Leicester), M Bayfield, T Rodber (Northampton), S Ojomoh (Bath), N Back (Leicester).

IRELAND: C O'Shea (Lansdowne); R Wallace (Garryowen), M Field (Malone), P Danaher (Garryowen), S Geoghegan (London Irish); E Elwood (Lansdowne), M Bradley (Constitution, capt); N Popplewell (Greystones), T Kingston (Dolphin), P Clohessy (Young Munster), M Galwey (Shannon), N Francis (Old Belvedere), B Robinson (Ballymena), P Johns (Dungannon), D McBride (Malone). Temporary substitute: K O'Connell (Sunday's Well) for Robinson, 55-56.

Referee: P Thomas (France).

(Photograph and match statistics omitted)

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