England 13 Ireland 10: Rugby gods deny Bod the chance to leave on a final high
Ireland’s cherished rugby hero overshadowed by England’s exciting young guns
Saturday 22 February 2014
No fuss, no fanfare, no fairytale. Crucially for Brian O’Driscoll on the day his legend was indelibly embellished, no Triple Crown. He felt history’s arm on his shoulder as the future exerted itself in the form of a callow but ultimately irresistible England team. It had the feel of a definitive occasion.
As the chill of evening descended, Ireland’s greatest player was ushered towards the margins. He limped off, unnoticed, 40 seconds from the end of an authentically intense contest, an old school test of will which didn’t need the new age accompaniment of screeching, sub-operatic anthems.
Boys became men; hope became sustainable. There was fulfilment, where there could so easily have been further evidence of fallibility. Should England make the most of a home World Cup next year, this narrow victory will have a special feature in the celebratory DVD.
England’s search for a cultural identity widened to involve a gladiatorial march into the stadium from the team bus in Twickenham’s West carpark. The gesture was mere window dressing. The explosion of relief at the final whistle, followed by an exhausted, exultant lap of honour, was proper reward for being made of the right stuff.
Stuart Lancaster is giving himself options. England’s head coach learned more in his squad’s spirited response to adversity in the last half an hour of a gripping match than during an 80-minute stroll in Edinburgh, where their ambition was smothered by the comfort blanket of an easy victory over Scotland.
Having spent the game wearing the mask of a stern taskmaster, Lancaster rose from his seat above the tunnel and threw both arms towards the heavens when the win was confirmed. England had answered their failure to close out victory in their initial Six Nations fixture in Paris. Their defence was heroic, and underpinned by a rare form of emotional ferocity.
“I’m just so proud of them,” Lancaster admitted. “It was a proper Test match, two quality sides going at it. I thought we were excellent throughout. We showed a real maturity. I am delighted for them. Ireland threw everything at us but once we got that lead we just clung on.”
The Six Nations title is in the balance. Four teams have four points, and Wales will arrive at Twickenham in 13 days in a crusading mood. It promises to be another educational experience for an England side quickly compensating for inexperience. “We have learned to absorb pressure and not panic,” Lancaster reflected.
Andy Farrell, his trusted leuitenant, was rather more direct: “That took massive balls.”
Ireland raged against the dying of the light. They met a human wall. This was a battle of wills, an examination of the limits of commitment. As for O’Driscoll, we were left to reflect on the man and what he represents.
His unwillingness to take the spotlight denied Middle England the opportunity to pay him ritual homage. In an era of empty cheerleading and manufactured emotion, that matched his stature. Such players are rare, and routinely transcend allegiance. The petty debates which tend to be prompted by substantial sporting achievement were best left to the bars afterwards.
O’Driscoll equalled George Gregan’s world record of 139 caps. Though that won’t generate the global spasm of warmth and respect which greeted Pele’s 1000th goal, Jack Nicklaus’ 20th major or Don Bradman’s poignant failure to sustain a Test average of 100, the milestone had resonance.
To survive 15 seasons in the uniquely attritional environment of international rugby is remarkable enough. But to do so with such dignity and integrity, without sacrificing a scintilla of his aggression, is the stuff of legend.
His record may yet be overhauled by All Black captain Richie McGraw, who is on 124 caps and counting, but he means as much to his nation. He is cherished as a warrior-poet, a character who blends subtlety and ferocity.
O’Driscoll is not on an extended lap of honour; he had another direct opponent to subdue, and a collective ambition to pursue. Luther Burrell belongs to a different generation. Since this was only his third international appearance, time will tell whether he is of the same breed.
Lesser players can learn from the way the Irishman has adapted himself to the subtle erosion of his athletic ability. The fast twitch muscle fibres have been replaced in importance by the speed of his brain and the steeliness of his nerve. He has retained his authority, while evolving into an additional forward when required.
There is no room for sentiment. He is not on a free ticket. England have chosen to plan ahead with a young yet exciting team. Ireland have recognised the importance of his experience. Their failure to win the Triple Crown, and another year without a Grand Slam, will hurt.
Danny Care’s try was the only one they have conceded this season. They still have a tackle success rate in excess of 90 per cent. But when it mattered most, they were defied. Another page turned, and another story began to be written.
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