Where England had planned, or at least hoped, that cool heads would reign, seething anger and recrimination held sway at Croke Park. Two yellow cards in the second half which ushered Ireland towards victory and took the English total of sin-bin stints to 10 in four matches drew a cutting reaction from the manager, Martin Johnson. "It is very annoying, I am trying to keep my cool but I've told my guys the penalties and yellow cards cost us the chance of beating one of the best teams in Europe. Some of them you can argue about, some of them are just stupid."
It was clear Johnson believed the second English yellow yesterday, when the replacement scrum-half, Danny Care, barged into the back of the Ireland prop Marcus Horan on the fringe of a ruck, was in the "stupid" bracket. The resulting penalty by Ronan O'Gara gave Ireland a 14-6 lead: a conclusive two-score difference.
Asked whether he would consider dropping players, Johnson said: "We'll look at it but now is not the time to talk about that. It's not one individual doing it all. You are always going to give away a few penalties but when it goes out to 18 you are not going to win. The work you put in to try and win a game is wasted."
England complained at the start of the week about the refereeing of one South African, Jonathan Kaplan, in another close-run away defeat in Wales a fortnight ago, which featured yellow cards for Mike Tindall and Andy Goode. Before that they lost Lee Mears, James Haskell, Toby Flood and Tom Rees against New Zealand in November, and Shane Geraghty and Haskell in the Six Nations win over Italy earlier this month. There appeared little to argue over when Kaplan's compatriot, Craig Joubert, sent Phil Vickery, the England tighthead prop and former captain, off for 10 minutes in yesterday's third quarter. Steve Borthwick, the present skipper, will come under scrutiny after he was offered the chance by Joubert to warn his team they were in danger after a couple of offences in the so-called "red zone" close to their goal line, but did not appear to do so.
A minute or so later, Vickery crouched over a ruck to contest the ball and with his No 8, Nick Easter, leaning on him, went on to his knees: cue the return of England's yellow peril. Before long, 15-man Ireland and their outstanding captain, Brian O'Driscoll, had scored their only try past 14-man England.
"It's clearly not sinking in. If there was an easy fix, I'd do it, we'd do it," said Borthwick. "He [Johnson] is clearly angry. Danny made a decision in the heat of battle. We know we let ourselves down out there. Selection is up to Johnno."
Critics including Paul O'Connell – the Ireland lock and a leading candidate to captain this summer's Lions – lined up to lambast England. "Their discipline definitely cost them, it was definitely poor," said O'Connell. "I don't think you could argue with a lot of the [referee's] decisions." The former England centre Jeremy Guscott, on BBC TV, said Care's offence was "ridiculous, headless and mindless. It cost England the game." Declan Kidney, the Ireland head coach, said: "Sympathy is the last thing Martin [Johnson] would want from me. It is always frustrating if you don't play the 80 minutes with 15 men."
England looked promising when Easter and Nick Kennedy knocked O'Connell out of his stride in the line-out. Joe Worsley brought a hard-eyed focus to his job at flanker, whether tackling tough or standing off at attacking line-outs, but it was not echoed throughout.
There are musclemen the length and breadth of England who recall few more cockle-warming moments than a six-man England scrum repelling the All Blacks in 2003. It happened when Neil Back and Lawrence Dallaglio were in the sin-bin. Forwards on the edge doing what they do, or heinous criminals dropping their mates in the doo-doo? Johnson was the man who as captain in that match in Wellington instructed his five pack-mates simply to "push". He needs to come up with either a more eloquent or a more effective answer now.