Rugby Union: Punch of Perry is perfect response

Five Nations: Tournament is beautifully poised as the Kiwi-inspired Celts make their presence felt
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THERE WAS little mention this time of wider pictures or more pressing concerns in the southern hemisphere, the arrogant claptrap which had marred the victory over Scotland. England gave Ireland the respect they so richly deserved and turned Lansdowne Road into the sort of good old-fashioned slog worthy of an increasingly intriguing Five Nations' Championship.

What the game lacked in finesse it made up for in guts and passion, the more earthy ingredients of Anglo-Irish struggles. On the evidence of this nip-and-tuck affair it is not just the English who can approach the World Cup with a spring in their step. There will not be many more mobile, experienced or creative packs than Ireland's in the competition. Only the big win eludes them. Twice now they have been shaded in their own backyard, and they were unlucky to catch England on a revenge mission. The captain, Lawrence Dallaglio, provided the most emphatic answer to his critics, but this was an England side narrow-eyed and focused on a target dressed in green.

Despite the 15-27 scoreline, England's victory was in doubt until Tim Rodber fell over the Irish line on the stroke of full-time. After spending most of the afternoon on the back foot, the Irish had mustered a spirited fightback, which had England's rugby league-style defence summoning nail and hammer as much as nerve and sinew. Some unlikely heroes emerged: Jonny Wilkinson with some thumping tackles and the diminutive David Rees.

Had Kyran Bracken, Jerry Guscott and Wilkinson managed an extra yard or two between them the game would have been over well before the frenzied finale. Some desperate Irish defence held England at bay, but in all honesty not even their most fervent supporter could argue with the confirmation of England superiority. For another year, at least.

There was no mistaking the stream of optimism which had flowed through the streets of Dublin all day, eddying around the more traditional flavours and sounds. Not the standard blind hope which has marked these occasions in recent years, the crazy belief that all would be right on the day, but the real understanding that this Irish side, peppered with experience and orchestrated by a fly-half of international class, were on the verge of great things.

A similar feeling had been buried two years before by England's relentless professionalism. But, under the shrewd prompting of Warren Gatland, New Zealand-born but Irish adopted, there was a different dimension to Ireland's Five Nations challenge: some distinct Kiwi pragmatism had been added to the Irish fervour. This Irish side, it was said, did not hit the barriers after an hour. The French had been hounded to within a foot or two of defeat, a result given due perspective by Wales's astonishing victory in Paris.

Irish expectations were heightened by the fickle March conditions. The Irish team were accompanied on to the field by their mascot, 12-year- old Alastair Hall, who lost a leg in the Omagh bombing. The brave little figure, dressed proudly in his Irish kit, lent a poignant air to the pre-match roof-raising. A cold, swirling wind must have sent a chill down the spine of Matt Perry, the cherubic England full-back.

The high kicks had nestled unerringly in the arms of Perry in practice before kick-off. But much of the talk during the week had centred on the whippet-skinny Bath full-back's ability to stay firm under the sky rockets with a swarm of green shirts obscuring his eyeline. England's agitated demeanour at the lengthy presentation ceremonies suggested they could not wait for the talking to stop. A thundering start by England was matched by equally forceful defence. It was six minutes before Perry was first tested. And just as he had in South Africa on a filthy day beneath Table Mountain, he was rock solid. Round one to the England full-back.

But better was to come for Perry. Two David Humphreys penalties to a solo kick by Wilkinson had given Ireland a narrow advantage, though England had spent much of their time camped within sight of the Irish line. Working the left side of the Irish defence once more, Perry was fed a beautiful swift pass by Wilkinson, sidestepped inside once, then again, and hurled himself gleefully over the line, a try fashioned and executed by England's future. Up above, a solitary flag of St George fluttered from the corner of the main stand. Perry, a shy boy-next-door type, allowed himself a punch of the air. There could be no better response to the scrutiny of all Ireland.

By half-time, the heavyweight confrontations lay just about even: Richard Cockerill and Keith Wood, a thimbleful of hair between them; Victor Costello and Dallaglio controlling the back rows; Paddy Johns and Martin Johnson dominating the line-out; and the kicking duel between Humphreys and Paul Grayson. An exchange of penalties early in the second half, the second, a beautiful pressure kick by Wilkinson, just about restored England's advantage.

Two further dead-eyed penalties by the young England centre stretched the England lead within sight of domination, realised belatedly by Rodber. The 12-point margin of victory hardly reflected the tightness of the contest. On the day, England's pack were mighty. Ireland, as Gatland pointed out in the preliminaries, have time on their side. The real winner was the spirit of the Five Nations.