Rugby Union / Five Nations' Championship: Ireland create their own perfect chaos: Elwood excels as England are Engulfed

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The Independent Online
Ireland. . .17

England. . . 3

ERIC WHO? has become Eric Elwood and, now that they know him all too well, England will never forget him. Just as they will never forget the day every last preconception about the Irish team and Irish rugby - not to mention today's Lions selection for New Zealand - was shattered.

Yes there was a gulf between the teams, but directly contradictory to what the English and of course we pundits anticipated. That it was in Ireland's, not England's, favour was a surprise. That it yawned so wide that England took a hiding was deeply shocking. Ah well, better to have found out now, before the Lions were chosen.

The scale of defeat, in a championship match anyway, was a novel experience for the Geoff Cooke generation. It was the worst since Ireland beat England 17-0 in Dublin in 1987 - a match from which only Peter Winterbottom still survived.

For him, Wade Dooley and Jon Webb, it was a wretched way in which to fade into retirement. 'You can't always have a fairy-tale ending,' lamented Webb. 'The last two games have been fairy-tale stuff,' Elwood gasped. Webb's farewell tally was one penalty, leaving his England record on 296 Test points. Elwood's top o' the morning to England was two penalties, two drop goals and a hand in the Irish try.

The manner of England's defeat matched the scale, repeating the one great English failing that Cooke as manager has never been able to address even during his years of unparalleled success. The residual chance of a third consecutive championship disappeared when Plan A broke down and there was no Plan B.

It had happened against Wales in 1989 and this season, against Scotland in the Grand Slam decider of 1990 and now in this match: the inability to adapt and so survive, to work out a problem on the hoof in those fleeting moments when matches can be won but on all these occasions have been lost.

Saturday's calamity was a classic of this kind. The starting-point was the line-out, where Martin Bayfield put in a prodigious performance to win 22 of England's 36 possessions. The Irish managed only 14 between them, but then half the time they scarcely bothered to try to win the ball in this area, instead focusing on pouring through on to whoever was the recipient from Bayfield.

The result was mayhem. England, whether it was Dewi Morris at scrum- half or the non-jumping forwards vainly trying to clean up, sometimes could not and at other times would not get the ball away. Nor did a harsh experience, growing ever harsher as the game went by, make any difference. When the ball did eventually get as far as the midfield, there it tended to stop.

It was as if the Scotland match, with its liberating sequences of bold, attacking rugby running into space, had never happened. Even Stuart Barnes, the hero of Twickenham, kicked on the solitary occasion an overlap was created. Everyone seemed intent on seeking out the tackler instead of avoiding him, and no one appeared to have a clue what to do instead.

The times when things might just have changed for the better were rare. Sandy MacNeill, certainly not England's favourite referee, declined to give Mike Teague the benefit when he crossed the line with a few Irishmen hanging on for dear life in the first half; Jeremy Guscott could not hold a difficult scoring pass after Rory Underwood had finally freed himself up the left touchline in the second.

Otherwise it was a mess or, looking at it from an Irish view, perfect chaos. 'When you lose a game, people question your tactics; they never seem to question them when you win,' Cooke said. Not so. When England did their 1991 Slam, their tactics - meaning, as they then did, the redundancy of an attacking back division - were widely questioned. There again, tactics can become an irrelevance when, as here, pride and passion really do win matches.

How on earth Ireland did it after a championship that began in meek submission against Scotland is one of the miracles of this modern rugby age. 'I was going to keep this a secret but we did spend a weekend in Lourdes,' Gerry Murphy, the Ireland coach, said. It was a good joke - and anyway this Murphy is a Proddy - but there have been times when divine intervention has seemed the only thing that can save Irish rugby.

In fact it took hard work and attention to detail, hardly characteristics associated with Irish rugby even during its good times. Where England ultimately flattered to deceive, Ireland never flattered themselves that they could play the fancy-dan rugby with which England beat Scotland.

But, by heaven, they could stop it. They have improved with every game during this championship, having stabilised their forward play with the help of Willie Anderson, the former captain, and having discovered a neat and tidy outside-half who does the ordinary things exceptionally well can at last play to their own strengths rather than be overwhelmed by those of others.

International rugby is the better for it and for the fact that we are not yet again - remember the World Cup quarter-final against Australia and the first Test in New Zealand last summer - raising a glass of the black stuff to another heroic Irish failure.

'Without Irish rugby, the Five Nations' Championship would be a little bit dreary,' the other Murphy - manager Noel - added. Extraordinary to relate that a year ago the Lansdowne Road crowd were jeering their own team; on Saturday they built a wall of sound and England ran straight into it.

Elwood's first-half penalty was cancelled by Webb's, the only time England managed a score in the entire match coming as a result of a reversed penalty. Within five minutes of half-time Elwood had dropped a goal and landed a second penalty, and when the out-half got the drop on England for the second time with five minutes left Lansdowne Road exploded.

It was only the first detonation. Ecstasy turned to delirium when Will Carling, not for the first time, was hammered down in midfield by Phil Danaher and, when the ball ran loose, there was Elwood followed by Michael Bradley and finally the irresistible Mick Galwey to score the try at the game's last gasp.

After his team had lost to France last month, Gerry Murphy was asked what he would do now. 'Go and drink a lot of gin,' he said. On Saturday night, as what seemed like the whole of Dublin wanted to glad-hand him as he crossed the lobby of the team hotel (it took 20 minutes), he was asked the same and replied: 'I think I'd better keep my head tonight.' He did not.

Ireland: Try Galwey; Penalties Elwood 2; Drop goals Elwood 2. England: Penalty Webb.

IRELAND: C Clarke (Terenure College); R Wallace, P Danaher (Garryowen), V Cunningham (St Mary's College), S Geoghegan (London Irish); E Elwood (Lansdowne), M Bradley (Constitution, capt); N Popplewell (Greystones), T Kingston (Dolphin), P Clohessy (Young Munster), P Johns (Dungannon), M Galwey (Shannon), P O'Hara (Constitution), B Robinson (London Irish), D McBride (Malone).

ENGLAND: J Webb (Bath); T Underwood (Leicester), J Guscott (Bath), W Carling (Harlequins, capt), R Underwood (Leicester); S Barnes (Bath), D Morris (Orrell); J Leonard, B Moore (Harlequins), J Probyn (Wasps), M Bayfield (Northampton), W Dooley (Preston Grasshoppers), M Teague (Moseley), B Clarke (Bath), P Winterbottom (Harlequins).

Referee: A MacNeill (Australia).

----------------------------------------------------------------- FINAL FIVE NATIONS TABLE ----------------------------------------------------------------- P W D L F A Pts France. . . . 4 3 0 1 73 35 6 Scotland. . . 4 2 0 2 50 40 4 England. . . .4 2 0 2 54 54 4 Ireland. . . .4 2 0 2 45 53 4 Wales. . . . .4 1 0 3 34 74 2 -----------------------------------------------------------------

(Photograph and graphic omitted)

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