Johnson given reason to be optimistic but not expectant
Ireland 9 England 20: England look some way short of World Cup standard despite welcome victory in Dublin
Monday 29 August 2011
Martin Johnson will count them all on board at Heathrow today, and count them all off again when they finally reach Auckland, 20-odd hours and a dozen in-flight movies later. Quite what state the England manager's World Cup party will be in come touchdown is another matter entirely. Will Mark Cueto's spasm-prone back benefit from the best part of a day spent at 35,000 feet? Probably not. How will Lewis Moody's much talked-about knee be looking on arrival in All Black country? Less than brilliant. As for the rest of the back row, who between them have enough dodgy calves to start an illegal farmers' market...well, you get the drift.
This much is certain, though: the red-rose contingent will travel in far better heart as a result of their well-earned victory at Lansdowne Road than if they had gone down the pan in the Irish capital for a fifth consecutive time. The last time England won in these parts, in 2003, they left town with two prizes: one of them tangible, in the shape of a Six Nations Grand Slam; the second of them abstract, in the form of confidence and momentum. And we all remember where that took them.
Not that they will be flying to the Antipodes as favourites for the global title on this occasion. The two sides here could have played at twice the tempo, three times the intensity and quadrupled their levels of accuracy and still not matched the standard set by Australia and New Zealand in Brisbane a couple of hours earlier. If either England or Ireland have a David Pocock, a Conrad Smith, a Will Genia or a Daniel Carter among their number, it is the best-kept secret since George Smiley retired from the Circus.
For all that, Johnson was perfectly justified in taking considerable satisfaction from his team's performance in the last of three preparatory contests. Not because it was better than the other two – while an upward trajectory is always welcome, England would have been hard pushed not to improve on their Cardiff display a fortnight previously – but because they did a number of things well in the face of significant disruption.
Despite losing the No 8 Nick Easter on the morning of the game (one of the twanged calf muscles belonged to him) and seeing both Cueto and the emergency call-up Hendre Fourie depart early in the piece, they won all the collisions that mattered, established a degree of set-piece control entirely missing on their last visit here in March and scored the only tries of the match, one of them by the alarmingly powerful newcomer Manu Tuilagi.
Yet in getting a number of things right, England provided ample evidence that they might have got something badly wrong in not including Fourie among their World Cup 30. Summoned as a result of Easter's late withdrawal and the no-show from Tom Wood, who was left at home with the medics, the South African-born flanker played so well during the first knockings that he leapfrogged Riki Flutey as the unluckiest victim of the final selection cull.
Pocock's astonishing performance for the Wallabies had already reinforced the notion that next month's tournament will be a showcase for the specialist groundhog brigade – the McCaws and Brussows, the Warburtons and Barclays. As Fourie went about his work from the first whistle, featuring twice in England's initial advance into Irish territory and repeatedly causing problems for the green-shirted hordes on the floor, the thought dawned that Johnson missed a trick by picking a fourth lock rather than a sixth back-row forward.
As it turned out, Fourie did something nasty to his hamstring and hobbled off early in the second quarter: had he been in the squad, he would have had to travel injured. This did not, however, prevent Johnson being pressed on the subject, and the manager was less than amused when it was suggested that had the reject delivered a second 20 minutes as good as his first, he might have been substituted for committing the cardinal sin of being embarrassingly good. "I'd have loved to have taken him to New Zealand, but we have our 30," he responded with a meaningful glare.
Sadly, there will be no flight for David Wallace either. The 35-year-old Irish breakaway, a Lions Test flanker in South Africa two summers ago, found himself on the wrong end of what might be called a "strike" from the human bowling ball known as Tuilagi and was carried from the field on a stretcher, his right knee in shreds. There was nothing remotely illicit about the tackle, but the English Samoan hit Wallace fearfully hard. It was immediately obvious that his World Cup opportunity had evaporated – Shane Jennings of Leinster will travel in his place – and afterwards, members of the Ireland back-room team were wondering whether he might call it a day.
Ireland, meanwhile, are in a bad place all of a sudden, and on this showing, they have more chance of losing to Italy in Dunedin than beating a buoyant Australia in Auckland.
"Absolutely, we can turn this around," insisted Paul O'Connell, the grand old Munster lock who led the side here in O'Driscoll's absence. "We may not have produced our best form over the last few weeks and guys are disappointed, but morale won't be particularly affected by what's happened." Mmm. Ireland talked optimistically before the 1999 World Cup and again four years ago, yet flew home before the knock-out stage on both occasions.
Five months ago, when they ripped up England on this same rectangle of turf, they looked the most likely of the British Isles teams to make an impact in All Black country. Now, with Tommy Bowe in one of his quiet phases, a lack of direction at scrum-half and a back-row unit undermined by serious orthopaedic trauma, they look the least likely. If is eight years since England looked so comfortable in Dublin's fair city, it must be every bit as long since Ireland looked so feeble here.
Scorers: Ireland: Penalties O'Gara 3. England: Tries Tuilagi, Armitage. Conversions Wilkinson 2. Penalties Wilkinson 2.
Ireland: G Murphy (Leicester); T Bowe (Ospreys), K Earls (Munster), G D'Arcy (Leinster), A Trimble (Ulster); R O'Gara (Munster), E Reddan (Leinster); C Healy (Leinster), J Flannery (Munster), M Ross (Leinster), D O'Callaghan (Munster), P O'Connell (Munster, capt), S Ferris (Ulster), D Wallace (Munster), J Heaslip (Leinster). Replacements: D Leamy (Munster) for Wallace 25; D Ryan (Munster) for Heaslip 40+2; R Best (Ulster) for Flannery 50; J Sexton (Leinster) for O'Gara 64; C Murray (Munster) for Reddan 64; T Court (Ulster) for Healy 75; F McFadden (Leinster) for Trimble 77.
England: B Foden (Northampton); C Ashton (Northampton), M Tuilagi (Leicester), M Tindall (Gloucester, capt), M Cueto (Sale); J Wilkinson (Toulon), R Wigglesworth (Saracens); A Sheridan (Sale), S Thompson (Wasps), D Cole (Leicester), L Deacon (Leicester), C Lawes (Northampton), T Croft (Leicester), H Fourie (Sale), J Haskell (Ricoh Black Rams). Replacements: D Armitage (London Irish) for Cueto 23; T Palmer (Stade Francais) for Fourie 23; D Hartley (Northampton) for Thompson 52; M Stevens (Saracens) for Sheridan 56; S Shaw (unatt) for Deacon 66; T Flood (Leicester) for Tindall 81.
Referee N Owens (Wales).
Winners and losers: What it means for the World Cup
Mike Tindall (England)
A career outside centre, the stand-in captain showed some deft touches in stamping some much-needed authority on the inside position.
Geordan Murphy (Ireland)
A surprise pick at full-back, the Leicester veteran justified his management's decision to abandon their youth policy temporarily.
Ben Foden (England)
What happened to the buccaneering spirit? If the full-back continues to kick away possession, Delon Armitage will overtake him.
Donncha O'Callaghan (Ireland)
Eerily quiet in the loose and exposed at the line-out, the Lions lock has some catching up to do.
World Cup build-up verdict
Ireland: Four warm-ups, four freeze-outs. The coach Declan Kidney's decision to take the hard road through August has had a negative impact, both physically – Felix Jones and David Wallace out of commission, Cian Healy out of the first World Cup fixture – and emotionally. Confidence has plummeted like a weak share index. Preparation rating: 2/10
England: Martin Johnson would have a seriously fit squad on his hands, but for all the injuries. There is also continuing concern over the team's attacking shape: without Tuilagi, there is precious little going on. They started the month with a so-so performance, then went from terrible to decent in the space of a fortnight. Preparation rating: 6/10
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