The script could barely have been better crafted. Ireland, despite winning three Triple Crowns in four years, have never actually finished on top of the Six Nations' Champ-ionship; their last success was in the old-fashioned five-country version, 23 years ago. As for the Grand Slam, that solitary achievement arrived 61 years ago. Yesterday they almost fluffed their lines, but nevertheless a rugby Oscar awaits if the head that awaits the crown doesn't drop.
Traditionally Ireland are about as comfortable with favouritism as wearing hair shirts designed by Oliver Cromwell, but this time the colour was emerald green, although their long-held lead was diluted by England – an unbelievably negative and limited England – at the end. For Ireland, Ronan O'Gara had a wretched time with the boot, landing two kicks out of six, but their opponents, on their second and last visit to the cathedral to Gaelic sport that is Croke Park, suffered another choking fit as their disciplinary record let them down.
Phil Vickery and Danny Care were sent to the sin-bin, bringing England's yellow cards to 10 in four games. The defeat also brought their record under Martin Johnson to two victories from nine matches, and those were against the Pacific Islanders and Italy. Ireland, on the other hand, are at Europe's summit. Next up is Scotland at Murrayfield.
On their throw, England opted for shortened line-outs, which worked well until Paul O'Connell rose like a rocket to deprive them of possession on the Irish 22. It meant that the 10 players standing out wide were rendered redundant and Ireland, after a slightly hesitant start, gained a foothold.
Not that they were able to utilise it. The ball they were winning was slow. England were also grateful for several reprieves. The first came after 12 minutes when O'Gara missed a penalty from just shy of 40 yards, the ball drifting just wide of the left-hand upright. Another came nine minutes later when O'Gara, whose Test average is more than 14 points a match, made an even bigger hash of an easier shot. By his standards it almost amounted to a miskick – the ball skewed horribly wide of the right-hand upright.
In between, the Irish created the clearest chance of the match so far when Tomas O'Leary, from a rehearsed move, put in a clever kick to the right-hand corner – after O'Gara had driven England back with a sublime touchfinder from the outside of his right boot – which led to a race between Mark Cueto and Tommy Bowe. Cueto got in front of Bowe by about a yard.
At this point Brian O'Driscoll had a hand in proceedings. First he roused the crowd with a big hit on Nick Kennedy and then he interrupted a promising counterattack by Flood with an interception that could have cost England dear but for an ankle-tap by Steve Borthwick.
As it was, O'Gara hit the target after 28 minutes and about 60,000 flags turned Croke Park into a sea of green. The picture, however, changed just before half-time when Flood found his best touch to date, putting England within sight of the Irish line. A couple of drives couldn't get them over the whitewash but they were rewarded with a penalty and Flood made no mistake from almost point-blank range to level the scores after a tense, nervous but heavy-duty first half.
Within 30 seconds of the restart O'Gara had another chance, after James Haskell was penalised for handling on the floor, but the stand-off's kick rebounded off the right-hand post. England were defending with heart and guts, but "defence" was the biggest word in their vocabulary. After Delon Armitage had been relieved of possession by O'Connell, England conceded another penalty. They didn't have time to retreat behind their posts, as O'Driscoll dropped for goal. It wasn't the purest strike but it gave his side a 6-3 lead after 45 minutes.
O'Driscoll, perhaps inevitably, was the centre of attention. He was hurt by Riki Flutey's high and marginally late challenge – there was no penalty – and no sooner had he recovered than he was down again, flattened by an illegal challenge from Armitage after he had chipped over the full-back.
As the battle for the ball went Ireland's way, especially in the 50-50 scraps on the floor, England conceded three penalties close to their line and the upshot was a yellow card for Vickery. While he was in the cooler, O'Driscoll burrowed his way between Julian White and Nick Kennedy for a try. O'Gara, who missed the conversion, landed a penalty in the 70th minute but it was Armitage who threatened to give the Irish a collective nervous breakdown, adding a try in the 78th minute, after good work by Andy Goode, to a penalty.
In the end, Ireland got home by a point. But the distance may as well have been as wide as the Liffey.
Man for Man: England
DELON ARMITAGE 6/10
Kicking from hand wasn't at its best, but that didn't mark him out from the run of things, did it? Took out O'Driscoll to concede a penalty, although any full-back would have done that. Kicked a decent long penalty and scored a late try, thanks to Goode's kick through.
PAUL SACKEY 5/10
Mears missed a chance to make an overlap for the Wasps wing early on and that was the general pattern of his game – waiting for others to do things they didn't do.
MIKE TINDALL 5/10
Conceded England's third penalty, but he was utterly stuck at the bottom of a ruck at the time, so we'll let him off. In fact, most of England's penalties were like that.
RIKI FLUTEY 5/10
There's subtlety there, but there's very little space in which to show it and though England seemed to be waiting for him to spark, when he did the Irish defence snapped down like the lid on a Zippo lighter. Clobbered O'Driscoll like Wallace clobbered him, only his clobber didn't, strictly, involve his arm. Naughty.
MARK CUETO 6/10
Decent defensive effort, which is something you get every week, under the high ball and chasing back to cover kicks. He can attack too. Honest.
TOBY FLOOD 5/10
Stood very flat at the off, distributing confidently – then found himself on the blindside flank at the first defensive scrum, hoping not to get flattened. Maybe that experience made his kicking leg a bit shakey. No half-breaks – maybe the odd 1/18th of a gap showed itself. Maybe.
HARRY ELLIS 5/10
Bad box kick first up and there were a few more where that came from, although his other work around the base of the ruck was sharp. It had to be, of course, with Wallace and Ferris in his face most of the time.
ANDREW SHERIDAN 6/10
His confrontation with Hayes put about 40 stone in opposition on the left of the scrum and the Englishman, surprising to say slightly the lighter man, had the better of it for most of the match.
LEE MEARS 6/10
Line-outs were strong enough and he made good ground all over the pitch, as usual, winning the penalty that Flood kicked to level the scores at the half. Capable of going under tackles, instead of round or over them. Which is nice.
PHIL VICKERY 5/10
"Not again," said the referee after a deliberate knock on. "Not again." Then that nice Mr Joubert advised him not to bind on the arm. He did it again. Penalty. Bit dull. And then, yes, later on he was the one who went to the bin for one of those ruck penalties.
STEVE BORTHWICK 5/10
Most valuable, or just visible, contribution was a tap tackle on O'Driscoll that nipped a rare break in the bud.
NICK KENNEDY 6/10
Facing someone of the stature – and sheer bloody size – of O'Connell is never easy, so how did he do? Pretty well. Maybe a big bosh from O'Driscoll rattled his bearings and made him concede the first three points. Later on he pulled down an Irish maul to prevent a try – well done, but it's a horrible, horrible rule.
JAMES HASKELL 6/10
Not penalised as much as usual, which – in a game that made clutching for small mercies a positive entertainment – was an absolute boon. He did dip into one ruck though, which was almost reassuring. Can get back to justifying his move to France.
JOE WORSLEY 6/10
Turned over on his first carry; then went to his other position, centre, and made the first of many scything tackles. If you could, technically, "bosh" ankles, that's what he'd be doing. Goes in very hard and very, very low.
NICK EASTER 6/10
A rather old-fashioned No8 at the heart of a distinctly modern kind of boring game. At least Dean Richards – his ancestor – and his ilk had antediluvian things like mauls and scrums to do, rather than the constant, meaningless, lateral rucking and running Easter has to do. Lucky them.
Julian White on to cover for Vickery, then on for Sheridan. Danny Care on for Ellis, into the bin for a needless and costly foul. Dumb. Mathew Tait on for Sackey. Dylan Hartley on for Mears. Andy Goode on for Flood. Tom Croft on for Kennedy. Luke Narraway on for Easter.
Man for Man: Ireland
ROB KEARNEY 5/10
Too talented to be used running straight at forwards hanging about in the backs, really he is, but that was how he was used for the most part. A low-down, dirty shame. His kicking from hand, like most of the rest, wasn't at its best. At all.
TOMMY BOWE 5/10
Ran and chased kicks a lot when he hadn't kicked the ball in the first place, like a good modern winger. Take a bow, those who invented the Experimental Law Variations. Take a long, long bow.
BRIAN O'DRISCOLL 7/10
Winning his 91st cap, the first thing the record try-scorer had to do was tackle Kennedy to snuff out a dangerous attack – he absolutely walloped him. Dangerous-ish, and dropped a nice-ish goal to edge his men ahead after the break. Flutey wiped him out after that, and then Armitage had a go. That tends to happen when you're the main man, and he proved he still is with the try that sealed the deal. It was from an inch, aptly.
PADDY WALLACE 6/10
Nice hit on Flutey early on to get into the game, which was just as well, because his game, like everyone else's, was all about tackling and kicking and chasing after that.
LUKE FITZGERALD 6/10
Harried Ellis into conceding the penalty that O'Gara should have kicked to put Ireland in front after the off and was subsequently similarly busy for most of the game. Nice break and pass for Heaslip later on in the match.
RONAN O'GARA 5/10
Can you get 90th-cap nerves? The fly-half's first kick went straight out. In fact, he didn't start at all well in any area. Kicked like a drain too to start with, and as the game went on his kicking became, in the slang of the game, even worse – "toilet". It got a little better for him later on, to be fair.
TOMAS O'LEARY 6/10
The Munster scrum-half has an intelligent face... or at least it seems he does when he's playing as intelligently as he did in patches here. Nearly conjured a try for Bowe early on and was at the heart of most good Irish things until he was replaced, surprisingly, with the game in the balance.
MARCUS HORAN 5/10
Under pressure in the tight – it was ever thus, against England – and busy, creative, destructive, inspiring and annoying in the loose. It also was ever thus.
JERRY FLANNERY 5/10
More fight in him than you find at a post-pub midnight in Limerick, his home town where, conveniently, he owns a bar. Always in English faces and almost always hitting the right targets in the line-out. Which is only what a hooker has to do at any level of the game, isn't it?
JOHN HAYES 5/10
Now Ireland's joint most-capped player (on 92, at 35 years of age), because Mal O'Kelly didn't get on, and thus off the bench. England helped him celebrate by shoving him about all evening, "The Bull" getting thoroughly bulldozed. Still, he's come back from worse than that in his time.
DONNCHA O'CALLAGHAN 6/10
Took the first kick-off and made ground and then, like everyone else, found himself sucked into the slugfest.
PAUL O'CONNELL 6/10
Was it him who gave the first penalty away, after two minutes, when it took 77 against France? Probably – he is a lock, after all. And a very good one, as Kennedy found out quickly enough. At the heart of the pounding England took in the third period.
STEPHEN FERRIS 6/10
A beefier version of Worsley, which is meant as a compliment as wholehearted as the Ulster flanker's efforts around the field. Capable of jumping, for example, up the north face of Phil Vickery, hauling him down and winning a penalty. A bit like watching a lion taking down a wildebeest. A bit.
DAVID WALLACE 6/10
No one, not even the industrious Munsterman (one of whose brothers was an Ireland prop, like Fitzgerald's dad, although Wallace also has a brother who was a Test wing), gets an easy ride against Worsley. Came out of it about even, which will do.
JAMIE HEASLIP 6/10
Did some line-out work, which suggests that O'Connell and O'Callaghan had a fight on their hands, and showed up in the loose.
Peter Stringer on for O'Leary with 15 minutes still to go. Denis Leamy on for Heaslip. Rory Best on for Flannery.
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