England to place faith in house of Lancaster
England 30 Ireland 9: RFU forced into rethink with even rival Mallett appearing to back caretaker's promotion
If Stuart Lancaster, one of life's more enthusiastic target-setters, embarked on this Six Nations tournament with a Grand Slam in mind, he missed the mark by a fraction, thanks in no small part to Courtney Lawes' uncannily accurate impersonation of a seven-stone weakling in the closing stages of the game against Wales. If, on the other hand, he was thinking merely of railroading the Rugby Football Union into a fundamental rethink over their choice of full-time England coach, he hit the bullseye, dead centre. That rethink is now under way. It should not take long.
Ninety minutes or so after the red-rose front row's wrecking-ball demolition of the Irish scrum – an experience so humiliating for the visitors that Sean O'Brien, the breakaway forward from Dublin, freely used the word "embarrassed" in his summing up of events – a much-admired Premiership coach of recent vintage could be heard reflecting on what we had just witnessed.
"What is Stuart's record in club rugby?" he asked, rhetorically. "A decent Leeds side were relegated under him. He's had some success with England's second team, but my gran could coach them. If you examine his credentials, you can argue that they don't stack up. But how do we argue that he shouldn't be given the job in light of his results? I thought he'd win one from five. He won four, and could easily have won the lot. It's very difficult to argue against that."
It is in the nature of modern sporting life that the most familiar names get most things their own way most of the time, largely because celebrity – notoriety, even – are the currencies with the AAA rating. Who wants the little guy when you can have the Big Man instead? Nick Mallett, ante-post favourite to fill the England vacancy and guide the team towards the home World Cup three and a half years hence, is as substantial as they come in rugby union terms and as far as anyone knows, his name is still on the RFU's shortlist.
Yet in winning again at the weekend, the unrated Lancaster sent another stone flying from his slingshot and hit his Goliath-like rival smack between the eyes. "You can't see the RFU wanting to change a coach when you look at the team and see how happy they are," the Home Counties-born South African said, live on television from a studio down Cape Town way. A raising of the white flag? There were many on Saturday night who thought so.
The final interviews for the post are expected to take place this week. If "interviews" plural turns out to be "interview" singular, Lancaster will be securely in the post by the end of the month.
As he had done throughout the championship, Lancaster highlighted the contributions of two fellow coaches who are also waiting to discover what the hell happens next. "While I've done a lot of the bigger picture stuff, the technical detail has been down to Andy Farrell and Graham Rowntree," he said. "Coaching success depends on the skill sets of the people involved. I knew we would complement each other, that between us we'd cover all the bases."
There was a good deal of technical expertise in evidence at the weekend, especially from Rowntree's forwards, who not only established a level of setpiece superiority not seen from an England pack since the one-way scrummaging performance against a pitifully weak Wallaby unit in Perth two summers ago but also came up with a way of actually winning the game. Yet it would be damning with faint praise to describe Rowntree and Farrell as pure technocrats, just as it would be an error to dismiss Lancaster as nothing more than a "process" man with a sporting vocabulary drawn from American coaching manuals. At heart, all three of them are positive communicators – something that sets them apart from a clear majority of their immediate predecessors.
When the scrum-half Lee Dickson, who suffered all manner of indignities at the hands of the Irish back-rowers in the worst of the weather conditions, was substituted as early as the 49th minute, Farrell disappeared from his seat in the stand and materialised on the touchline to offer words of encouragement. When the England tight forwards returned, a little flat, to the dressing room at the midpoint of what was at that stage an extremely close contest, they found Rowntree in full motivational, inspirational flight. How the Irish scrummagers must wish he had been struck dumb.
Alex Corbisiero, Dylan Hartley and Dan Cole did pretty much everything right after the interval, giving their overmatched opponents so many intimate views of their own darkened recesses that Cian Healy, Rory Best and Tom Court ended the game as fully-qualified proctologists. There was a penalty try from a scrum pushover just shy of the hour mark and after another crashing wave of set-piece pressure seven minutes from time, a second five-pointer of the tap-and-scamper variety for Ben Youngs, who enjoyed his outing a lot more than the unfortunate Dickson. Add to this the 15 points kicked by the cold-eyed Owen Farrell as a direct consequence of all that superiority in the grunt-and-groan department, and you begin to get the picture.
If it was an unmitigated triumph for the front-row union, it was not quite a closed shop. Ben Morgan, a great cuddly bear of a No 8 who, from the opposition perspective, is growing less cuddly by the game, had himself an ball behind a tight unit moving forward at the scrummaging equivalent of speed of sound, and it was no particular surprise when he received the man-of-the-match plaudits. Yet in the first half, when the rain was falling and the Irish loose forwards were all over the tackle area like a rash, England's go-to man was a back, not a forward. Brad Barritt, the Saracens centre, carried vast amounts of rubbish ball without once dropping a colleague in the mire, and for that, he was deserving of at least half the bubbles emanating from Morgan's Methuselah.
"In weather like that, it's about the small yards," Barritt said. "The gain line was always going to be crucial, so we knew we had to take Ireland's space away from them and chop down their runners. Aggressive tackling, taking the ball up in sticky situations and keeping the error-count low... I guess that's my game. But then, we've all bought into that. It's why those of us outside the pack were happy to run 30 metres to pat the forwards on the back after a big scrum."
Five months ago, at the World Cup in New Zealand, the back-patting in the England camp tended to be for "successes" off the field: unusually accurate dwarf-throwing, for instance, or a high-tariff dive from a harbour ferry. So much has changed for the better under the stewardship of Lancaster, it is difficult to know where to begin.
It is not, however, difficult to imagine things continuing to change, in the right way for the right reasons. His appointment on a full-time basis is surely imminent.
Scorers: England - Tries: Penalty try, Youngs. Conversion: Farrell. Penalties: Farrell 6. Ireland Penalties: Sextion 3.
England: B Foden (Northampton); C Ashton (Northampton), M Tuilagi (Leicester), B Barritt (Saracens), D Strettle (Saracens); O Farrell (Saracens), L Dickson (Northampton); A Corbisiero (London Irish), D Hartley (Northampton), D Cole (Leicester), M Botha (Saracens), G Parling (Leicester), T Croft (Leicester), C Robshaw (Harlequins, capt), B Morgan (Scarlets). Replacements: B Youngs (Leicester) for Dickson 48; T Palmer (Stade Francais) for Botha 55; M Brown (Harlequins) for Foden 70; L Mears (Bath) for Hartley 74; M Stevens (Saracens) for Cole 74; P Dowson (Northampton) for Morgan 74.
Ireland: R Kearney (Leinster); T Bowe (Ospreys), K Earls (Munster), G D'Arcy (Leinster), A Trimble (Ulster); J Sexton (Leinster), E Reddan (Leinster); C Healy (Leinster), R Best (Ulster, capt), M Ross (Leinster), D O'Callaghan (Munster), D Ryan (Munster), S Ferris (Ulster), S O'Brien (Leinster), J Heaslip (Leinster). Replacements: T Court (Ulster) for Ross 36; R O'Gara (Munster) for D'Arcy 48; T O'Leary (Munster) for Reddan 48; M McCarthy (Connacht) for O'Callaghan 66; P O'Mahoney (Munster) for O'Brien 69; F McFadden (Leinster) for Trimble 73; S Cronin (Leinster) for Best 77.
Referee: N Owens (Wales).
England Points Ireland
2 (1 penalty) Tries 0
1/2 Conversions 0/0
6/6 Penalties 3/3
0/1 Drop goals 0/2 Phases of play11/1 Scrums won/lost 3/3
10/1 Line-outs won/lost 12/0
6 Pens conceded 12
9 Mauls won 7
5 Ruck and drive 9
37 Ruck and pass 31
99 Passes completed 88
4 Line breaks 2
30 Possession kicked 25
7 Kicks to touch 7
56/6 Tackles made/missed 74/11
3 Offloads in tackle 1
13 Total errors made 17
51 In open play 47
10 In opponents' 22 12
33 At set-pieces 21
5 Turnovers won 4
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