England outfought in battle of the dark arts

England 13 Ireland 19
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The Independent Online

The statistics sheet - a cold, charmless document that Clive Woodward must yearn to feed into the nearest shredding machine - tells the tale of this match: in surrendering an unbeaten single-venue record of unprecedented proportions, England were obliterated at the line-out, marmalised in the tackle and smithereened in the battle for possession. They also lost their poise, their sense of purpose and their authority.

The only things the world champions did not lose at Twickenham on Saturday were the error-count - which they won all too easily ­ and the shirts off their backs. The Irish, profoundly unimpressed by their opponents' skin-tight fashion-wear, did not want them anyway.

Woodward has suffered worse beatings at international level, not least the gruesome 76-0 hiding in Brisbane six years ago, which, compared with this, was almost a victory. But it is a seriously long time since an England side as close to full strength as this one found themselves bossed around up front to such a surprising ­ nay, staggering ­ degree.

As a result, Steve Thompson, Steve Borthwick, Ben Kay and Joe Worsley will be mighty fortunate to retain their starting places for the game against Wales on Saturday week. Iain Balshaw and Ben Cohen, two underperforming backs, are also in the stocks, en route to the gallows.

In terms of potential fall-out, that is not nearly the end of it. Woodward's much-debated "back four" strategy has about as much future as a Stalinist in a Texas oilfield, and it will be a seismic shock if Jason Robinson reappears in the outside centre position. There is no guarantee that Matt Dawson, a curate's egg in human form, will hold off the fierce challenge of Andy Gomarsall at scrum-half; it is by no means certain that the Gloucester props, Trevor Woodman and Phil Vickery, will continue in tandem. The coach has so many awkward decisions to make, he might consider calling a referendum.

Shaken to the core of his being by the comprehensive nature of Ireland's supremacy ­ had the visitors won by 15 points, the Twickenham branch of the John Bull Society would have struggled to find grounds for complaint ­ Woodward responded with a "don't panic" message of the kind regularly issued during the World Cup. Last autumn, he was proved right; this time, he sounded like Corporal Jones. With Martin Johnson sitting in a broadcasting booth looking like a Mafia hitman, rather than running around the pitch behaving like one, and with Jonny Wilkinson cocooned in a ball of cotton wool somewhere on Tyneside, hysterical overreaction may be the only sensible option.

"If you ask me," said Ronan O'Gara, the Munster outside-half who claimed 12 of his side's points and gave the lie to his reputation as a fragile spirit unsuited to the demands of the pressure occasion, "England missed Wilkinson more than they did Johnson. The mood our forwards were in, I don't think they would have minded who they were up against. Johnson was a fine leader, to be sure, but I'm not convinced he would have made the difference this time. They won the World Cup because they had the best pack and the best half-backs. But that was then."

England looked vulnerable up front the moment Danny Grewcock called in sick with a dodgy Achilles tendon. Like Johnson before him, the Bath forward is a master of the dark arts ­ a strong-arm merchant, an enforcer, a thoroughly objectionable hunk of hired muscle. Without him, the home side had no one to engage the magnificent Paul O'Connell, whose performance in the Irish second row confirmed him as the most potent lock in Europe.

Neither Borthwick nor Kay could match his ferocity. The latter, the son of a High Court judge, was too civilised by half. "He played like the daughter of a High Court judge," muttered one observer, a touch unkindly. Kay was torn to pieces at line-out time by another green-shirted tight forward, Malcolm O'Kelly. Borthwick, a natural middle-jumper redeployed at the front, battled manfully enough, but found himself compromised by a combination of Irish belligerence and Thompson's apparent inability to hit a barn door with a sledgehammer. England lost 11 line-outs ­ more than they would expect to lose in an entire season. It was pure carnage.

"In this game, muscle and aggression are basic ingredients," said Reggie Corrigan, the foursquare Dubliner who anchored the Irish scrum. "It's always been that way, and it will always stay that way. Without those ingredients, those fellows with the fast hands and the quick feet don't get to play. It's why there will forever be a place in a rugby team for big, awkward sods like myself. It was hard work, don't get me wrong; the last 10 minutes were the most terrifying of my life, because England kept coming and the exhaustion levels were huge. But every time we looked at them, they seemed to be in a worse state than us. That was what kept us going."

Corrigan and company started confidently ­ O'Gara would have opened his side's account as early as the fifth minute, but for a mortifyingly amateurish penalty miscue ­ while England committed, and recommitted, every cock-up in the catalogue. Balshaw fumbled O'Gara's first high ball, Thompson missed his jumpers with metronomic regularity, Dawson took wrong options from the base of scrum and ruck; there were missed tackles by the dozen, overcooked kicks by the score and knock-ons by the google. Ireland were not foot-perfect themselves; perversely, their greatest individual talent, Brian O'Driscoll, was their most persistent blunderer. But all things considered, they were far more accomplished than their hosts.

Somehow, England conjured a try from nothing early in the second quarter. Dawson, always in the thick of things, cut the cord between Anthony Foley and Peter Stringer at the base of the Irish scrum, and when Richard Hill toe-poked the ball upfield, the scrum-half accepted a pass from Paul Grayson and scampered through a fractured defence. When a deflated Stringer hurled a desperate defensive pass to no one in particular five minutes later, Corrigan was penalised at the ensuing scrum and Grayson added another three points to open up a 10-6 advantage.

Ireland were in no mood to be denied, however; driven along by a tight-forward unit growing in stature by the second, they forced both Woodman and Kay into conceding penalties and turned around 12-10 to the good. And 10 minutes into the second half, they came up with the crucial play. Gordon D'Arcy, outstanding in midfield, slipped away from Will Greenwood to instigate a withering attack that might have earned a try for O'Kelly in the right corner. When that avenue proved to be a cul-de-sac, D'Arcy and O'Driscoll fired long cut-out passes off their right hands and manufactured a high-quality finish for Girvan Dempsey in the opposite corner. O'Gara's conversion took them two scores clear.

To their credit, England summoned every last ounce of strength in an effort to rise from their pit of mediocrity. Cohen was denied a try down the left because D'Arcy clung to his ankle; Mark Regan, on for the hapless Thompson, was denied one down the right because O'Kelly clattered him with what the French would have called "the tackle from the ends of the earth". As a result of these defensive heroics, they had to settle for a second Grayson penalty, which was not nearly enough.

"I'd have to say this is my sweetest day on a rugby field," Corrigan beamed. "What makes it especially sweet is the thought that the Six Nations fixture list was drawn up on the assumption that England and France would play a Grand Slam decider in the last game. Well, we've thrown a spanner in the works, haven't we?" A spanner? Try the hammer of the gods, instead.

England 13
Try: Dawson
Con: Grayson
Pens: Grayson 2

Ireland 19
Try: Dempsey
Con: O'Gara
Pens: O'Gara 4

Half-time: 10-12 Att: 72,000

ENGLAND: I Balshaw (Bath); J Lewsey (Wasps), J Robinson (Sale), W Greenwood (Harlequins), B Cohen (Northampton); P Grayson (Northampton), M Dawson (Northampton); T Woodman (Gloucester), S Thompson (Northampton), P Vickery (Gloucester), S Borthwick (Bath), B Kay (Leicester), J Worsley (Wasps), R Hill (Saracens), L Dallaglio (Wasps, capt). Replacements: J Simpson-Daniel (Gloucester) for Balshaw, 52; C Jones (Sale) for Worsley, 52; O Barkley (Bath) for Grayson, 54-63; M Regan (Leeds) for Thompson, 58.

IRELAND: G Dempsey (Leinster); S Horgan (Leinster), G D'Arcy (Leinster), B O'Driscoll (Leinster, capt), T Howe (Ulster); R O'Gara (Munster), P Stringer (Munster); R Corrigan (Leinster), S Byrne (Leinster), J Hayes (Munster), M O'Kelly (Leinster), P O'Connell (Munster), S Easterby (Llanelli Scarlets), K Gleeson (Leinster), A Foley (Munster). Replacement: K Maggs (Bath) for Dempsey 60.

Referee: P Honiss (New Zealand).