Just for once, England followed the protocol by turning up to collect the Six Nations trophy when the tournament organisers expected them to turn up instead of disappearing into the Celtic twilight as fast as their tired legs could carry them and leaving a Very Important Royal Personage all dressed up with no one to reign over, as they had under similar circumstances in Edinburgh 11 years previously. What they failed to follow was the script they had written for themselves. Not for the first time in recent years – nor the second, nor even the third – they came to Dublin full of anticipation and left with plenty of nothing.
It is no small thing to win a Six Nations title – hell, this is the first time England have been able to call themselves champions of Europe since 2003, the year they ended as champions of everywhere – but there has long been a feeling around the championship that to win it properly, you have to win all five games. Four victories followed by a complete and utter spanking is not the stuff of which dreams are made, and Martin Johnson's players acknowledged as much on Saturday night. Indeed, there would have been a greater air of triumph about them had they secured a podium finish in a pub quiz down at Ye Olde Rat and Drainpipe.
How hard it is to believe that so many people spent so much of this tournament waxing lyrical about red-rose chances of winning the World Cup in New Zealand later this year. The draw may favour them, but if they play like this in All Black country, they will be back in Blighty by the time the knockout stage begins. The only thing we know for sure about their next competitive contest, a pool game with Argentina in September, is that it will not be played in the devastated city of Christchurch. Everything else is up in the air.
Once again, Johnson selected a picket-line midfield designed purely to stop those on the other side of the argument going about their work – Matt Banahan, the new man at No 13, is not obviously the red-rose answer to Brian O'Driscoll, as Brian O'Driscoll reminded him in person – and if England had found ways of manufacturing results on this basis before arriving here, the decision of every other part of the team to come out in sympathy with the centres left productivity at a standstill. The visitors created bugger-all, all night long. If they scored a try, it was only because both Eoin Reddan, the Irish scrum-half, and Bryce Lawrence, the referee, were in ultra-generous mood: the first in passing the ball straight to Steve Thompson from a line-out, the second in deciding that the unusually substantial hooker was the rugby equivalent of Usain Bolt, rather than plain offside.
Alarmingly from England's perspective, Ireland could have won by 30 points and still felt short-changed. The wondrous O'Driscoll would not have had to wait until the second half to break the championship's try-scoring record, set by the Scotland wing Ian Smith before the Second World War, had Lawrence not considered Tommy Bowe's pass to have been forward – a deeply questionable call, given that it looked a lot less forward than the pass Mark Cueto had thrown to Tom Croft for the match-winning touchdown in the Calcutta Cup game six days previously. By the same yardstick, the flanker David Wallace might easily have bagged a brace, one in either corner, but for some fine tackling of the last-ditch variety.
Perhaps the most depressing aspect of England's humiliation was their failure to "fire a shot", as Johnson put it. Indeed, the manager went further. "When you're in a fight," the old Leicester hardhead muttered with a sorry shake of the head, "you want to land a few, don't you? We feel as though we didn't land any." He will take that very deeply indeed. England have suffered their share of "horrible first halves" – Johnson's description – in recent months: against the Wallabies in Perth last summer; against the All Blacks at Twickenham in November. Yet on those occasions, they hung in there and made a game of it. Here, they hung themselves out to dry by making daft mistakes early on and remained hanging for the duration.
"I can't explain it," said Mark Cueto, the most experienced of the England backs who started the contest. "We've been good at finding ways of getting back into games we haven't started well, but this time we really struggled. We didn't panic, exactly – we weren't stood out there thinking 'the wheels have come off and there's nothing we can do'. Even when we were 17-3 down, there was some belief. But Ireland made life so difficult for us at the rucks, we couldn't get our hands on the ball. We just didn't get into it, sadly."
It was not as though Johnson and his coaches failed to foresee those problems at the tackle area. In the tight game with the Scots last time out, the England forwards were subjected to all manner of trouble and strife by John Barclay, the nose-to-the-ground back-row bandit from Glasgow. Here, they faced the opposite problem: when they tried to go to ground on their own terms, Donncha O'Callaghan refused to let them. Aided and abetted by the loose-head prop Cian Healy and the hooker Rory Best, the Munster lock mauled so strongly that the English ball-carriers spent much of the game engaged in an arm-wrestle they had no idea how to win.
As a consequence, all the linkages at the heart of England's much-improved attacking game – the Ben Youngs-Toby Flood axis at half-back, the Flood-Cueto connection in midfield, the Ben Foden-Chris Ashton double act out wide – were broken. And once that happened, no one had the faintest clue how to repair them. Least of all Youngs, who later confessed to having "played like an idiot". The Leicester scrum-half's active interest in the game ended after 38 minutes, when he lobbed the ball into the crowd to prevent Ireland taking a quick throw and was despatched to the sin bin for his trouble, never to reappear. If he is honest with himself, he will view this incident as a blessing in disguise. Had he stayed on the field, his reputation as one of rugby's brighter sparks might have been extinguished.
He was not alone in flirting so dangerously with personal embarrassment: in fact, he was in a healthy majority, best estimated in double figures. Man for man, England lost out everywhere, not least down the spine. Best played a hard, vigorous hand as Ireland's hooker while the No 8 Jamie Heaslip operated at 2009 Lions pitch, his energy level way beyond anything mustered by his direct opponent, Nick Easter. Reddan outplayed both Youngs and Danny Care; Jonathan Sexton was a paragon of poise at outside-half; Keith Earls looked positively lethal at full-back. Individually, these people were in the ascendant. Collectively, they were in a different league.
"We have to take our medicine, stop the bleeding and wear the scar," Johnson said. When someone asked him if he would stew on this for the whole of the next six months, he replied: "I don't know about six months." Six years would be a better bet.
Scorers: Ireland: Tries Bowe, O'Driscoll; Conversion: Sexton; Penalties Sexton 4. England: Try Thompson; Penalty Flood.
Ireland: K Earls (Munster); T Bowe (Ospreys), B O'Driscoll (Leinster, capt), G D'Arcy (Leinster), A Trimble (Ulster); J Sexton (Leinster), E Reddan (Leinster); C Healy (Leinster), R Best (Ulster), M Ross (Leinster), D O'Callaghan (Munster), P O'Connell (Munster), S O'Brien (Leinster), D Wallace (Munster), J Heaslip (Leinster). Replacements: T Court (Ulster) for Ross 60; R O'Gara (Munster) for Sexton 72; D Leamy (Munster) for Wallace 74; P Wallace (Ulster) for D'Arcy 83; P Stringer (Munster) for Reddan 83; S Cronin (Connacht) for Best 83; L Cullen (Leinster) for O'Connell 83.
England: B Foden (Northampton); C Ashton (Northampton), M Banahan (Bath), S Hape (Bath), M Cueto (Sale); T Flood (Leicester), B Youngs (Leicester); A Corbisiero (London Irish), D Hartley (Northampton), D Cole (Leicester), L Deacon (Leicester), T Palmer (Stade Francais), T Wood (Northampton), J Haskell (Stade Francais), N Easter (Harlequins, capt). Replacements: S Shaw (Wasps) for Palmer 27; D Care (Harlequins) for Youngs 45; J Wilkinson (Toulon) for Flood 51; S Thompson (Leeds) for Hartley 51; P Doran-Jones (Northampton) for Cole 51; T Croft (Leicester) for Deacon 55; D Strettle (Saracens) for Cueto 68.
Referee B Lawrence (New Zealand).
Man for man marking: How England rated
Ben Foden (full-back) The bad errors were elsewhere in the team, hence the relatively high mark 6
Chris Ashton (wing) The wing was fiery, feisty, full of aggression. He put England's pack to shame 7
Matt Banahan (centre) Overmatched against O'Driscoll. Size isn't everything, even in this game 4
Shontayne Hape (centre) Yes, he tackles brilliantly. Apart from that part of his game, what is he actually for? 4
Mark Cueto (wing) Uncharacteristic mistakes let him down, but flickered with footballing intelligence 6
Toby Flood (stand-off) The comparison with Jonathan Sexton did him no favours 4
Ben Youngs (scrum-half) Oh dear. The scrum-half's incarceration in the sin bin was a blessing. Was replaced 3
Alex Corbisiero (prop) Struggled against Mike Ross initially, but enhanced his reputation by finishing strongly 7
Dylan Hartley (hooker) Off his normal high level, but at least there was some energy about England's hooker 6
Dan Cole (prop) The England prop expected to "do a job" on Cian Healy. He most certainly didn't 5
Louis Deacon (lock) The England lock rarely loses an arm-wrestle, but he sure lost this one 5
Tom Palmer (lock) Early finish with injury, he took England's line-out with him 5
Tom Wood (flanker) Outstanding. If the whole pack had performed like the newcomer, who knows? 8
James Haskell (flanker) When all is said and done, Haskell just isn't an open-side flanker 5
Nick Easter (No 8) England's captain for the day was a very distant second to Jamie Heaslip 5
Simon Shaw (for Palmer) 5
Danny Care (for Youngs) 5
Jonny Wilkinson (for Flood) 5
Steve Thompson (for Hartley) 6
Paul Doran-Jones (for Cole) 5
Tom Croft (for Deacon) 6
David Strettle (for Cueto) 6
Ireland - Points - England
2 Tries 1
1/2 Conversions 0/1
4/4 Penalties 1/2
0/0 Drop goals 0/0
Phases of play
10 Scrums won 3
0 Scrums lost 1
11 Line-outs won 9
2 Line-outs lost 2
6 Pens conceded 9
4 Mauls won 4
8 Ruck and drive 13
48 Ruck and pass 61
Ireland Team - Stats - England
130 Passes made 147
5 Line breaks 2
27 Possession kicked 15
9 Kicks to touch 7
88 Tackles made 74
4 Tackles missed 8
10 Offloads in tackle 7
7 Total errors made 17
60 In open play 78
20 In opponents' 22 9
30 At set-pieces 18
4 Turnovers won 2
The match statistics
* Results Wales 19 England 26, Italy 11 Ireland 13, France 34 Scotland 21; England 59 Italy 13, Scotland 6 Wales 24, Ireland 22 France 25; England 17 France 9, Italy 16 Wales 24, Scotland 18 Ireland 21; Italy 22 France 21, Wales 19 Ireland 13, England 22 Scotland 16; Scotland 21 Italy 8, Ireland 24 England 8, France 28 Wales 9.