A day for leaders to stand up, and Ireland found a great one

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The Independent Online

The battling Irish completed the Celtic conspiracy to deny England the Grand Slam for the third year in succession. England forced them to defend desperately towards the end but there was no doubt that Ireland deserved this exciting victory.

The battling Irish completed the Celtic conspiracy to deny England the Grand Slam for the third year in succession. England forced them to defend desperately towards the end but there was no doubt that Ireland deserved this exciting victory.

England must be congratulated for winning the championship but I've never seen players look so miserable about the honour when the trophy was presented at the end of the match. It was probably not the time for them to recall the fantastic rugby they played earlier in the year and they will always wonder whether they were victims of the foot and mouth epidemic that forced the Six Nations to run over into this season.

Who knows what would have happened had this match been played when it was scheduled in the spring? England were on top of their game then and would have had the benefit of Martin Johnson and Lawrence Dallaglio, who were sadly missed yesterday. But the Irish were playing well then, too, and Dublin would have been just as difficult for the English as it was yesterday.

There's also the point that Ireland have had the benefit of games against Scotland and Wales. They got rid of their collywobbles when they played at Murrayfield and stoked up their confidence in Cardiff last weekend. England came fresh to the scene and did look a bit rusty but, then again, they did make a very good start and smashed through Ireland on at least two occasions early on with an ease that looked very threatening.

But they didn't make anything of the great chances they created and this is where the lack of leadership showed. Matt Dawson did well enough as captain but after he went off injured in the first half they lacked a firm hand on the wheel.

This was where I was disappointed with Jonny Wilkinson. I know that he is still a young man but he has been around the top grade long enough now to impose more influence on his team. We know he has the ability to stamp his authority on a game and he should not be afraid to say to more experienced team-mates: "This is the way we're going to play it."

There's never any doubt about Keith Wood doing that. The Irish skipper was outstanding yesterday, making big tackles and producing an amazing work-rate. His try was a splendid piece of opportunism even allowing for the bit of skulduggery that stopped Richard Hill from pouncing on him as Wood peeled round the back of the line-out.

When you analyse the English contribution, they were on top for the first 10 minutes and the last 15. The rest of the game belonged to Ireland who controlled possession much better, had a greater tactical awareness and continually pressured England into errors. With no one taking charge, England lost their shape, made a woeful number of unforced mistakes and were disastrous in the line-outs. They also tried to play too much football in situations when they should have concentrated on being composed and seeking good field position.

Better leadership would have prevented Danny Grewcock losing his head. As replacement captain, Neil Back spent too much time questioning decisions instead of controlling his team. Mike Catt didn't do badly but Will Greenwood and Iain Balshaw weren't up to scratch. Jason Robinson wasn't brought into the game enough either.

Ireland might have suffered when they lost David Humphreys but I admired the cool way that Ronan O'Gara came straight to kick a difficult penalty. Had he not done that, England might have taken heart earlier to mount their last-ditch attempt.

In case the English think that we Celts are gloating, this is not so. If they had won the Grand Slams that have been snatched from them over the last three years, people would have been saying what a waste of time the Six Nations is and talk would have flared up again about a breakaway. But they are not the conquering heroes yet and that's great for the development of rugby in the northern hemisphere.

I'm sure that England will be the better for the lessons they learned yesterday and we can look forward to them leading the attack against the southern hemisphere who will be coming over soon. It is vital we all do well in those matches.

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