It did not need one of the darker expressions from Martin Johnson's extensive locker of frowns and grimaces to realise England had been within an agonisingly small margin of a priceless win. So we did not get one. "I quite enjoy games like that in the wind and the rain," the England manager said, and the touch of levity reflected a kernel of promise within the nut-hard truth of a first Six Nations defeat at Twickenham on his two-season watch.
England are battling for public acclaim after years of disruption and distraction, and they had kicked and clawed their way to the brink of victory when Tommy Bowe's second try, Ireland's third, turned it all shamrock-shaped. For the home side, that meant goodbye to the Grand Slam, Triple Crown and, unless Scotland and France can be beaten away, the Championship. The Irish, victors over England in six of seven meetings since 2004, have the Crown still to go for, but will need a French slip-up if they are to retain their title.
There were seven minutes remaining of a bizarrely unbalanced match, in which England made only 30 tackles, less than a third of their opponents, when Ireland threw to a line-out on the home 22. England were 16-13 ahead, the latest score having been that old reliable, a Jonny Wilkinson drop-goal off the right foot. They had, perhaps crucially, just substituted Danny Care, the scrum-half whose switchback match had been on a significant upswing. The line-out was caught by Paul O'Connell and a huge gap opened at the tail. Tomas O'Leary darted a few metres before passing to Bowe, who bulleted past Wilkinson's inside shoulder and fended off James Haskell and Ugo Monye to score. Ronan O'Gara, on for Jonny Sexton as a steady hand on the No 10 tiller, converted. Though England worked a chance at the other end, Ireland were able to defend a powerful driving maul and the pleadings to the referee by Nick Easter and Steve Borthwick for a penalty for a deliberate collapse or the put-in at the scrum amounted to hopeless begging.
"It was a tough, tough loss," said Johnson, who has seen Ireland and France leapfrog his side in the world rankings in his 20 months in the job. "We're trying to play effective rugby, not playing at being sexy," he added, in reference to the opening spell of the match when Wilkinson epitomised a desire to avoid kicking and keep the ball in hand. But that opening period had also brought a fourth-minute try by Bowe, clattering on to Sexton's grubber after Wilkinson had been stripped in the tackle and Jamie Heaslip launched a clever counter to where England had forwards as defenders. Though Wilkinson's two penalties to one by Sexton trimmed Ireland's lead to 8-6 at half-time there was a four-letter word which summed up England's attacking options. No, not that one. Or that one. The word was pace, and a lack of it meant the Irish, though troubled mightily in the scrummage, were almost always able to rein in the white jerseys out wide.
There was also a dodgy spell for England's line-out in the middle part of the first half. This, again, was odd: a department in which Steve Borthwick, the churchmouse-quiet captain, excels was plundered by Ireland, who with 10 of last summer's Lions in their starting XV responded well to a 33-10 defeat in France. "I'm delighted with the whole squad's character," said Declan Kidney, the Ireland coach. Heaslip said: "England had time on the ball and played territory well, but I suppose we took our chances."
The next one – after Sexton and Wilkinson, both from improbably long range, had missed penalties early in the second half – fell to Keith Earls to round off after 55 minutes. It arose from an intervention by the French touch judge, Christophe Berdos, advising an England penalty to be reversed for Care tipping O'Leary in an angry attempt to get hold of the ball. O'Connell caught the resulting line-out and England were too easily outflanked on the short side, Earls scooting past the despairing Care.
Sexton could not convert, and three minutes later Care roused his team with a great break from a scrum. His grubber obliged Earls to carry over and after three scrum resets England in midfield first stalled, with Mathew Tait, then celebrated their solitary try as the prop Dan Cole burrowed over. Wilkinson converted for 13-13, then Ireland lost its captain and defensive master, Brian O'Driscoll, accidentally clattered by O'Connell's knee.
Wilkinson pushed a 40-metre penalty wide, then Care did well to set up a 30m drop. If England had hung on, no one would have quibbled. Bowe's bulleting try determined otherwise.
MAN FOR MAN MARKING
Delon Armitage 5/10
Might not be the first-choice full-back for much longer, as many people want Ben Foden, the man who replaced him once he got crocked, to have a run in the No 15 shirt.
Mark Cueto 6/10
As dangerous as anyone when England were trying things and as stuck in neutral as anyone when they weren't.
Mathew Tait 6/10
Another England back who seems too often just to launch himself straight at his nearest opponent – which is frustrating when, on less common occasions, he shakes a leg and dips a hip and shows what might yet be.
Riki Flutey 6/10
Has great long arms like Mr Tickle but would have felt more like Mr Bump after O'Driscoll welcomed him to the game. Spent most of the match trying to spark things, without much success.
Ugo Monye 6/10
Had a lot less kicking to do than usual, so he got on with hurtling into the green shirts with not a hint of a suggestion of an iota of a sidestep. Ho-hum. Defended well.
Jonny Wilkinson 6/10
Terrible kick-off; lost a high ball to Bowe; made a reasonable break; missed his first penalty. Enough to set the press box outrage-o-meter swinging. Started appearing in the centre in some attacks and dropped a goal after a few misses when advantage was being played. But Bowe's second try was scored down his channel.
Danny Care 6/10
Suffered unwelcome attention from the Ireland back row, making him a little late to the odd breakdown, and conceded the penalty that led to Earls's try, for retaliating against O'Leary. Harsh, maybe – but them's the breaks. His grubber then led to a five-metre scrum, which led to... Cole's try. An interestingly mixed bag.
Tim Payne 6/10
Won the first penalty against Hayes in the battle-of-the-not-so-hot-scrummagers, which set the tone for England's superiority at the scrum.
Dylan Hartley 6/10
Line-outs started to go wrong in the second quarter. Stabilised, relatively, after that and was at the heart of things until Mears replaced him.
Dan Cole 6/10
Followed Payne's good work on Hayes by putting one over Healy for a second scrum penalty, and after that England had the upper hand in that phase of the game. Scored his first Test try from about half an inch and needn't worry about subsequent substitution.
Simon Shaw N/A
Lasted less than four minutes after pranging his shoulder.
Steve Borthwick 6/10
Missed a tackle on Earls that might, but for Care's track-back, have proved rather costly, and the line-out problems would be his concern even if he wasn't captain. Then again, he sorted that out well enough and might be slightly aggrieved that the pack's efforts at the end of the match – particularly that 40m driving maul to within five of the Irish line – were not rewarded with a win.
James Haskell 6/10
Perhaps his speed makes him more of a top-of-the-ground player than one for the top six inches, as everyone sinks, as here, but he went eyeball to eyeball with the Ulster ultra in the opposing back row, Ferris, and came out about equal in the arm-wrestling, if not when it came to turning over possession.
Lewis Moody 6/10
Lost out to Wallace and Heaslip when it came to turnovers, in general, but scrapped about in his usual, engagingly energetic way.
Nick Easter 6/10
A couple of bone-headed penalties, a couple of nice touches in the loose. Always seems to inject a little oomph with the ball in hand, despite never appearing to be travelling very quickly.
Louis Deacon on very early for Shaw and the line-outs wavered. Took a short one instead... and got turned over. Part, however, of the general righting of things thereafter. Ben Foden on for Armitage for half an hour and showed more of a willingness to run (and quickly) than the man he replaced. Joe Worsley on for Moody, not quite like for like but similar. Lee Mears on for Hartley for 20 and seemed to spark the pack's effort. Paul Hodgson replaced Care and David Wilson replaced Cole with 10 to go, the latter adding beef to the battle up front.
Geordan Murphy 6/10
The man with the "Irish Hair" – search for Dylan Moran clips on YouTube if you need an explanation – has hardly played this season. No wonder he looked as rusty as his locks for most of this one, then.
Tommy Bowe 7/10
Had the legs on Moody for the first try and always looked a threat, physical as much as tactical, thereafter. So his second try, bursting on to quick ball off a line-out, shouldn't really have been the surprise it seemed to be other than for Wilkinson not making the tackle.
Brian O'Driscoll 6/10
Handed one out to Flutey early on before getting stuck in the midfield morass which deepened as the game went on. It was a day for brutality rather than brilliance and in the end Paul O'Connell's knee did quite conclusively what the English defenders could not.
Gordon D'Arcy 6/10
Flashed, occasionally, but otherwise echoed his captain outside him by getting on with the dirty work with appropriate lashings of relish.
Keith Earls 7/10
Got in Armitage's way in defence, might have stopped a try, wasn't penalised. Job done. A lively break from a loose England kick might have created a try, but didn't quite. Job almost done. Took his own try very well, down the left.
Jonathan Sexton 6/10
Set up Bowe's first try with a finely judged kick but his judgment was a bit off when he then tried a penalty from inside his own half. Flickered in and out of focus after that.
Tomas O'Leary 6/10
Had more protection from his back row than Care and benefited accordingly, kicking well. A feisty little bugger, as his role at the centre of a second-half set-to showed – he even got a penalty out of it when Care retaliated. And the penalty led to Earls's try.
Cian Healy 5/10
All the attention was on his fellow prop, the centurion, so the loosehead got to suffer at Cole's hands quietly.
Rory Best 6/10
An alert presence at the front of the line-out, ready to try something or stymie something else, as required. Has come back from a serious neck injury – not bad for a squat little front-rower who didn't seem to have a neck to hurt in the first place.
John Hayes 5/10
First telling action on his 100th cap was to give away a penalty at the scrum. Has happened to him before and he has always just shrugged and got on with fighting the good fight, as, naturally, he did here.
Paul O'Connell 6/10
England's line-out problems were a case of their own radar going wonky, though of course that radar was picking up this enormous ginger obstacle loud and clear. Then again, thanks to the lock's knee his captain won't be picking up anything except Finnish shopping channels and snatches of the shipping forecast for a while yet.
Donncha O'Callaghan 6/10
Returned to his accustomed place and provided the usual mixture of solid play and telling little eccentricities that only those with an eye for the minutiae of ruck and maul would have spotted. Those of us unfortunate enough to have one of those appreciate him.
Stephen Ferris 6/10
Said something interesting in the week about the practice of "sticking" to tackles, in order to slow the opposition's progress by slowing the ball. It didn't work, apparently, in Paris last week. It did work here.
David Wallace 6/10
Got his mitts on a fair bit of ball early in the first half, setting the tone for the match. Ireland were under it at the scrum but they were up with it at the line-out and all over it at the breakdown.
Jamie Heaslip 7/10
Played a vital part in Bowe's first try and seemed to be operating on the edge of legality at most of the rucks. He's a No 8, so he should have been doing just that, and if he fringed over it a few times... so what? A dirty job well done.
Tony Buckley replaced Hayes when the old Bull started to buckle and won one valuable turnover. Andrew Trimble on for O'Driscoll. Leo Cullen on for O'Callaghan. Ronan O'Gara on for Sexton with 10 minutes to go and the scores level – time for his long, sliding kicks, which he delivered. Shane Jennings on for Wallace and head first into the filth.
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