England 33 Ireland 10: England alive and kicking with Cipriani the perfect 10

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The Independent Online

Like all the best ideas – the poll tax protests, the minimum wage, dishwashers, toothpaste – it seems so obvious now. Why were England firing nothing but blanks in attack? Because they were saddled with a kicking outside-half who posed no threat to opposition defences with ball in hand. The solution? Replace him with a No 10 who could pose one.

Step down, Jonny Wilkinson; step forward, Danny Cipriani. When the joyous Welsh finally find their way out of the pub and start reflecting upon the events of the last few weeks, they will thank the good lord that Cipriani was not picked for the first game of the Six Nations rather than the last.

Of course, ideas are of no practical use unless someone has the brass balls to put them into effect. Brian Ashton, the England coach, not only thought the unthinkable in the aftermath of that desperate defeat in Edinburgh nine days ago, but also did the undoable by dropping the undroppable. It was a courageous move to demote Wilkinson for a must-win match at Twickenham, where the celebrated goal-kicker was canonised by the faithful long before he popped over that nice little three-pointer in Sydney back in 2003.

In a fair and reasonable world, Ashton would be congratulated – not just for this, but for delivering a best Six Nations finish in five years to add to his achievements at the global gathering in France last autumn.

Sadly, the world he inhabits is neither fair nor reasonable. He has been publicly lambasted by embittered former players, some of very recent vintage, and privately briefed against by Rugby Football Union grandees who crave a "big name" at the top end of the England operation: a Martin Johnson, a Jake White, a Shaun Edwards.

The words "Clive" and "Woodward" are back in circulation, and it will not be long before the former Wallaby coach Eddie Jones gets a mention. Why not sign the lot of them on five-year rolling contracts, and double the ticket prices to pay for it? "Some of the things said about Brian have been pretty horrific," remarked Phil Vickery, the captain, after leading his country to a first win over the Irish in five attempts. People say I'm an avid supporter, but I just try to see him as a regular bloke, doing a challenging job to the best of his ability."

It was not the first time the Cornishman had felt the need to stand by his coach: last October, in the aftermath of a second successive World Cup final, he performed a similar service using a more colourful variety of language. He is growing tired of the bitching and backbiting.

There is some savage irony at work here, for at the weekend England played more like a team coached by Ashton than at any time since the 61-year-old Lancastrian took over, with the possible exception of the exciting victory over France at the same venue in the 2007 Six Nations.

And what might the two games in question have had in common? England started both with a young, bold, attack-minded outside-half prepared to play flat, threaten defenders and bring the full range of playmaking skills to bear on the opposition. A year ago, it was Toby Flood. On Saturday, it was the Marquis of Mayfair himself. Disciplined a week previously for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, Cipriani did everything right here; indeed, his performance was the best from a No 10 in the entire tournament.

He amassed 18 points without missing a kick at goal, he punted beautifully – one oblique-angled strike to the right corner during a hot spell in the first half was utterly brilliant – and there was something of another Daniel, the All Black maestro Carter, in the way he mixed up his passing and running games.

He even took a high ball under extreme pressure, and if he finished a distant second when Paul O'Connell, the aggressive Irish lock, suddenly came stampeding in his direction, his defensive act will be sharpened soon enough.

"It wasn't a one-man band out there," protested Ashton, and he was right to do so. Two of England's lower-profile forwards, the hooker Lee Mears and the flanker Michael Lipman, produced their best performances at international level, and there was much to admire about Jamie Noon's gung-ho tackling.

Noon might have claimed three tries, rather than one: he should have scored before the interval after cutting a perfect angle on Cipriani's cleverly delayed pass and would certainly have made it down the right touchline after the break had he backed himself to catch his own chip, rather than attempt an unlikely dribbling act Cristiano Ronaldo himself might have considered overambitious.

Yet even Ashton, reluctant to add fuel to the Cipriani fire for fear of seeing it rage out of control, could not resist a compliment or two. "I was hoping he'd do that out there," the coach said. "I've known him since he was 14 and I knew he had the capability. He's very confrontational and has a massive range of skills. He also plays with great authority." Where might this leave Wilkinson? "It's not over, this battle," came the reply. "Danny will have to watch his back."

Ashton might have been describing his own position. Talking of which, his opposite number, Eddie O'Sullivan, is now in serious strife. In theory, the four-year contract he signed before the World Cup kicks in next month, but precious few Irishmen at Twickenham gave him a cat's chance in hell of leading the national team on their tour of New Zealand and Australia in June.

Unlike Ashton and England, he and his side failed to make the World Cup knockout stage; unlike Ashton, he did not summon a performance from his charges on Saturday, despite the heaven-sent fillip of a 10-point lead inside six minutes. "There's no doubt the better team won," he admitted, before filing his application for membership of the Danny Cipriani Appreciation Society: "The try count reflected England's domination, particularly of the midfield contest. We simply didn't have the cutting edge they brought. We didn't inflict damage on them, but they certainly inflicted it on us."

O'Sullivan insisted he had no intention of resigning – why would he walk away, with four years' money among the factors to be considered? – but while the Irish Rugby Football Union generally makes the process of continental shift seem rapid, it can be quite ruthless on occasion. Ask Warren Gatland, who found himself drummed out of a job he was doing perfectly well back in 2001. How Gatland must be sniggering as he basks in his new-found Welshness. All of which leads us back to Ashton and the peculiar position in which he finds himself.

Saturday's display was the most invigorating by an England side for many a long month – far better, in all sorts of ways, than anything they managed during the last World Cup – but far from applauding a genuine step forward inspired by a player around whom a new red rose side might be constructed, some RFU types regard the events of the weekend as a damned inconvenience. And there's the sadness of it.

England: I Balshaw (Gloucester); P Sackey (Wasps), J Noon (Newcastle), T Flood (Newcastle), L Vainikolo (Gloucester); D Cipriani (Wasps), R Wigglesworth (Sale); A Sheridan (Sale), L Mears (Bath), P Vickery (Wasps, capt), S Shaw (Wasps), S Borthwick (Bath), T Croft (Leicester), M Lipman (Bath), N Easter (Harlequins). Replacements: M Tait (Newcastle) for Sackey, 47-59 and 67; J Wilkinson (Newcastle) for Flood, 53; M Stevens (Bath) for Vickery, 62; B Kay (Leicester) for Shaw, 62; J Haskell (Wasps) for Lipman, 67; P Hodgson (London Irish) for Wigglesworth, 80; G Chuter (Leicester) for Mears, 82.

Ireland: G Murphy (Leicester); T Bowe (Ulster), A Trimble (Ulster), S Horgan (Leinster), R Kearney (Leinster); R O'Gara (Munster), E Reddan (Wasps); M Horan (Munster), R Best (Ulster), J Hayes (Munster), D O'Callaghan (Munster), P O'Connell (Munster), D Leamy (Munster), D Wallace (Munster), J Heaslip (Leinster). Replacements: S Easterby (Llanelli Scarlets) for Leamy, 11; L Fitzgerald (Leinster) for Murphy, 37; T Buckley (Munster) for Horan, 70; M O'Driscoll (Munster) for Wallace, 72; P Stringer (Munster) for Reddan, 76; B Jackman (Leinster) for Best, 76; P Wallace (Ulster) for Horgan, 84.

Referee: S Dickinson (Australia).

HALF-TIME: 13-10

ATTENDANCE: 82,000

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