Rugby Union: The time is right for Guscott

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The Independent Online
Ireland (6) 6 England (11) 46

Tries Sleightholme 2, Gomarsall,

Underwood 2, Hill

Cons Grayson 2

Elwood 2 Pens Grayson 4

Twenty minutes after the teams had disappeared from view, an entire regiment of yellow-jacketed security men were making a pathetically inadequate attempt to prevent half a dozen nine-year-olds from tearing all over the Lansdowne Road pitch. As a symbol of what had just passed before the disbelieving eyes of the Irish rugby public, it was well-nigh perfect; had Jim Staples and his dejected side still been out there on the paddock, the kids would have run them ragged, too.

Staples had promised that the Irish would make the first 10 minutes "a bit lively". He was true to his word; the solids hit the air conditioning with the reckless momentum of a runaway double-decker, Paddy Johns and David Corkery clattering into the fray with such unbridled enthusiasm that Martin Johnson and Tim Rodber, experienced members of England's sensible set, lost their collective rag and wreaked retribution with boot and fist.

Sadly for the underdogs, that was the extent of their success. If the match was a strangely monochrome affair for three of its four quarters - it was colourful only to the extent that having made the visitors see red, the men in green were beaten black and blue before being forced to reach for the white flag - the final 16 tumultuous minutes were enough to signify an almost unbridgeable gulf between the two countries.

England are becoming accustomed to rewriting their own Five Nations benchmarks. After giving Scotland an 11th-hour heave-ho at the start of the month, they surpassed their previous best against Ireland - the 35- 3 victory in 1988 - with more than a converted try to spare. Had Jeremy Guscott, probably the best international centre ever to be confined to regular bench duty, been granted longer than three minutes to remind everyone that he continues to draw breath, the 50-point mark would have been left way behind in the slipstream.

The aristocratic elan with which Guscott created two top-drawer tries for Tony Underwood was proof positive that he badly wants a piece of the current action. England are on a roll, thanks to their "front-five giants" - Jack Rowell's description brooks no argument - and two flankers equipped with the combined lung-power of a herd of elephants and the footballing instincts to make it pay. Guscott was born to feed off fast, penetrating flankers like Lawrence Dallaglio and Richard Hill, and if Rowell now fails to let him off the leash for a full 80, it will be a scandalous waste of pedigree.

Still, we knew that England possessed a decent pack. What we did not know for sure before this unforgiving Saturday in Dublin was whether Paul Grayson, much maligned at outside-half but, at the same time, much improved, could dictate the agenda of a big match rather than give everyone else on the pitch a say in the matter.

Grayson came up smelling of roses - big, pungent red ones, as befitted a Valentine weekend. Rowell may not be quite ready to swear undying fidelity to the Northampton goalkicker, but a similarly sound and secure performance against the French in a little under a fortnight could well propel him from the backwaters of Franklins Gardens to the killing fields of South Africa. The Lions will need a cool and accurate marksman when they take on the Springboks this summer and given that such players are about as easy to find as gold bullion from the Brinks Mat warehouse, the dice are beginning to fall very nicely for the 25-year-old Lancastrian.

Sadly the same could not be said for Eric Miller - another likely Lion. Leicester's exceptionally gifted young No 8 lasted just 11 minutes - albeit 11 minutes of spectacular mayhem - before being carted off to hospital with his mind in the land of the fairies. Although no one was prepared to point an immediate finger, there were dark mutterings among the Irish hierarchy of an English fist and a possible citing, complete with video evidence. England found themselves in a similar situation last season when an equally key opponent, Scotland's Rob Wainwright, was poleaxed on the quiet. If Miller turns out to have copped a right-hander, the Rugby Football Union disciplinarians will be placed in a delicate position.

If anyone was feeling delicate in the immediate aftermath, however, it was Brian Ashton. Ireland's coaching adviser had moved from brave new dawn to high noon in the space of five weeks and when it came to the shoot- out he found himself confronting Rowell's howitzer with a cap gun. "We were quite creative during the first 50 minutes and broke the English defensive line more often than any European side had for some time, but they are quite happy to wear opponents down for an hour and then move up two or three gears as defences tire and the field opens up. When we found ourselves playing catch-up, we were very naive."

So was the Irish selection, particularly in terms of the replacements. The decision to go in with only two reserve backs, an outside-off and a scrum-half, backfired badly when Staples wrenched a hamstring early in the second half. With David Humphreys already on for the stricken Eric Elwood, the captain had no option but to grin and bear it. As a result, his lack of mobility was relentlessly exposed by Grayson and his entries into the line were so slow that Will Carling and Tim Stimpson could block him out at walking pace.

Ireland had quite enough defensive liabilities to disguise without their classiest back joining the throng and once Grayson's place-kicking had put the visitors 13 points clear on 49 minutes, a rout looked on. England did not disappoint. Andy Gomarsall, never entirely convincing at scrum- half but sharp enough to catch the Irish short-side barricade in a state of abject disrepair, led the way with the softest of tries in the 64th minute and the final eight minutes yielded 22 points.

France will be nowhere near as accommodating at Twickenham on 1 March but then, they will not be feeling too confident, either.

IRELAND: J Staples (London Irish, capt); D Hickie (St Mary's), J Bell (Northampton), M Field (Malone), J Topping (Ballymena); E Elwood (Lansdowne), N Hogan (Terenure College and Oxford University); N Popplewell (Newcastle), R Nesdale (Newcastle), P Wallace (Saracens), P Johns (Saracens), J Davidson (London Irish), D Corkery (Bristol), E Miller (Leicester), D McBride (Malone). Replacements: A Foley (Shannon) for Miller, 11; D Humphreys (London Irish) for Elwood, 24; B O'Meara (Cork Constitution) for Hogan, 65.

ENGLAND: T Stimpson (Newcastle); J Sleightholme (Bath), W Carling (Harlequins), P de Glanville (Bath, capt), T Underwood (Newcastle); P Grayson (Northampton), A Gomarsall (Wasps); G Rowntree (Leicester), M Regan (Bristol), J Leonard (Harlequins), M Johnson (Leicester), S Shaw (Bristol), L Dallaglio (Wasps), T Rodber (Northampton), R Hill (Saracens). Replacements: A Healey (Leicester) for Gomarsall, 65; J Guscott (Bath), for Carling, 77.

Referee: C Hawke (New Zealand).

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