It is now very nearly a year since England put three tries and 33 points past Ireland in the final round of the 2008 Six Nations Championship, which also happened to be Brian Ashton's last hurrah as a Test coach. Ashton now spends his time at Bath University overseeing a group of dedicated high-performance athletes from a wide variety of disciplines, which is almost too amusing for words, given that his successor at the top end of the red-rose operation, Martin Johnson, finds himself running a team of low-performance rugby players who are dedicating themselves entirely to pushing back the frontiers of indiscipline.
They are making a hell of a job of it, too. Ten yellow-card offences in four matches, committed by nine different players from every corner of the team, is going some by anyone's standards, especially as the sin-bin count is 20 per cent higher than the try-count. The International Rugby Board is rumoured to be considering doing away with the sin bin for England matches, and installing a sin skip instead. It's a good idea. Better than the Experimental Law Variations, that's for sure.
The list of Crimes and Misdemeanours (some recent performances might have been scripted by Woody Allen) was deeply impressive even before Johnson's seventh defeat in nine contests: one punch (misdirected), one trip (half-hearted), one high tackle (borderline) and one air tackle (bonkers), along with sundry technical offences at the breakdown. On Saturday night, the Harlequins scrum-half Danny Care broke new ground – and almost broke Marcus Horan's back into the bargain – with a cheap-shot shoulder charge from behind. The Munster prop was in no position to defend himself. To be perfectly frank, neither was Care.
According to Johnson, the incident changed the game. "It was 11-6 to Ireland at that point," he said, threateningly dressed in an overcoat straight out of "The Godfather" and glowering like a hitman preparing to send someone to sleep with the fishes. "Suddenly, we were 14-6 down with no scrum-half." At least the manager understood what it was to be an Italian at Twickenham in the first round of matches. They didn't have a scrum-half, either.
Care is expecting the rocket treatment, and by the time he returns to Planet Earth, he will probably find either Ben Foden, of Northampton, or Paul Hodgson, of London Irish, occupying his place in the squad. Yet England's preference for doing dumb things in multiples meant he was never likely to be the only one to serve time. Sure enough, Phil Vickery, the most experienced player in the side as well as the most vocal in stressing the need for a regular outbreaks of good behaviour, also picked up a 10-minute sentence for a minor-league transgression at a ruck set up by the major-league Irish lock Paul O'Connell.
In all, England conceded 16 penalties and a couple of free kicks, not to mention a wonky drop-goal to Brian O'Driscoll while the referee was playing an advantage after spotting yet another white-shirted miscreant up to no good. Just about the only time England behaved was before the anthems, when Steve Borthwick, the captain, took the novel decision to stand in the right place rather than the wrong one ahead of the Irish president Mary McAleese's handshaking duties. When Johnson was skipper in 2003, he did it the other way round: miles out of order before the match, well-nigh perfect during it.
Borthwick was every bit as exasperated as his boss at England's deep-seated inability to stay on the right side of the law for longer than a few seconds at a time. "We've talked about it, we're worked on it in training, we've looked at videos, we've spoken to officials, but we're not getting it right," he admitted. Did he not think it peculiar that so many of the penalties resulted from English stupidity, rather than Irish pressure? "I would if it had stood out from the norm, but it didn't, did it?" he replied. "The fact that I don't find it peculiar is the most damning indictment of all."
By implying that his side might have won the game but for Care's indiscretion, Johnson stretched the point to the limit of its elasticity. The visitors finished as close as they did only because Ronan O'Gara went entirely off-radar with his goal-kicking, in the same way that the Irish went down the wrong road with their attacking strategy. England have precious few strengths at present, but their hosts somehow contrived to play to all of them by narrowing the base of their game, hammering away around the edges of the forward conflict and ignoring runners of the calibre of Rob Kearney, Tommy Bowe, Luke Fitzgerald and the magnificent O'Driscoll.
O'Driscoll, reduced to his component parts by a couple of late hits and some painful encounters with a hard-working English loose trio in which Joe Worsley again made his presence felt in the tackle, insisted afterwards that he never expected anything less than a thorough examination of mind and mettle. "That was one of the more physical Tests I've played in a long time," said the centre, whose chances of retaining the Lions captaincy in South Africa this summer are strengthening by the day. "There is always a special joy in beating England because I know how hard it is to do. Leaving aside the 2007 game, I've never won by more than a single score. This time, it was a single point."
But in truth, it was as comfortable a one-point victory as they come. England scored their try – another of Andy Goode's speciality kick-chase efforts, finished by Delon Armitage – with less than a minute remaining on the clock, and if there was more beauty about it than O'Driscoll's subterranean score on the hour, there was a whole lot less about it in terms of impact. Had the one real flash of red-rose imagination, summoned by Toby Flood and the criminally underused Mathew Tait, born fruit, things might conceivably have turned out differently, but that attack midway through the final quarter ended with Care spin-passing the ball straight off the field. Oh well.
How distant the 2008 dismantling of the Irish at Twickenham now seems. In their still unexplained desperation to end the Ashton regime, some Rugby Football Union types – not least the chairman, Martyn Thomas – derided that 33-10 victory as valueless, on the grounds that the opposition had been unusually hopeless. A few weeks later, Ireland almost beat the All Blacks in Wellington: the same All Blacks, that is, who immediately went on to score more than 80 points in two matches against the "new" England.
After three rounds of this tournament, England are below the fold in fourth place. They might make it into third; there again, the French, who come to Twickenham a week on Sunday, might decide otherwise. Whatever happens from here, the first year of the post-Ashton era has been desperate. Which rather begs the question of why we're in a post-Ashton era at all.
Ireland: R Kearney (Leinster); T Bowe (Ospreys), B O'Driscoll (Leinster, capt), P Wallace (Ulster), L Fitzgerald (Leinster); R O'Gara (Munster), T O'Leary (Munster); M Horan (Munster), J Flannery (Munster), J Hayes (Munster), D O'Callaghan (Munster), P O'Connell (Munster), S Ferris (Ulster), D Wallace (Munster), J Heaslip (Leinster). Replacements: P Stringer (Munster) for O'Leary 70; D Leamy (Munster) for Heaslip 74; R Best (Ulster) for Flannery 75.England: D Armitage (London Irish); P Sackey (Wasps), M Tindall (Gloucester), R Flutey (Wasps), M Cueto (Sale); T Flood (Leicester), H Ellis (Leicester); A Sheridan (Sale), L Mears (Bath), P Vickery (Wasps), S Borthwick (Saracens, capt), N Kennedy (London Irish), J Haskell (Wasps), J Worsley (Wasps), N Easter (Harlequins). Replacements: M Tait (Sale) for Sackey 62; D Care (Harlequins) for Ellis 62; A Goode (Brive) for Flood 70; D Hartley (Northampton) for Mears 70; T Croft (Leicester) for Kennedy 75; J White (Leicester) for Sheridan 84; L Narraway (Gloucester) for Easter 84.
Referee: C Joubert (South Africa)
Yellow peril: Sin-bin brigade
England's 10 sin-bins in their last four internationals:
*29 November England 6-32 New Zealand
1. Lee Mears (penalised after he was caught with his hands in the ruck attempting to slow down a New Zealand attack, 24th min)
2. James Haskell (swinging an arm to an opponent's head, 32nd min)
3. Toby Flood (penalised for a high tackle, 43rd min)
4. Tom Rees (infringement at the break-down, 76th min)
*7 February England 36-11 Italy
5. Haskell (sin-binned for trip, 34rd min)
6. Shane Geraghty (dangerous tackle, 63rd min)
*19 February Wales 23-15 England
7. Mike Tindall (using hands in the ruck, 16th min)
8. Andy Goode (killing the ball, 42nd min)
*28 February Ireland 14-13 England
9. Phil Vickery (killing the ball, 60th min)
10. Danny Care (late shoulder charge, 70th min).Reuse content