It is becoming one of the great sporting quests. Three times, England have stood on the verge of a Six Nations Grand Slam, three times the Celtic tiger has roared its defiance. Wales two years ago, Scotland last time and now Ireland, gloriously and deservedly. England once again won the championship, but the last brick in the wall of their home domination remains obstinately unfilled.
The last five minutes here at Lansdowne Road, not so much a cathedral of rugby as a battered old parish church, will be relived wherever Irish rugby bubbles to the surface of late-night conversation. No stranger to sieges down the years, the Irish defence ran and tackled themselves to a standstill as England, belatedly, threw away their textbook and resorted to more tried and trusted principles.
Time and again, England swept forward towards the ever-thinning green line; time and again, the Irish stood firm, and when Danny Grewcock caught a long pass and turned inside in ignorance of four white shirts begging for the ball on his outside, you sensed that once again the game was up. At the final whistle, Malcolm O'Kelly sank to his knees in disbelief; Richard Hill and Jonny Wilkinson could barely speak. Their faces were white and drained. Not again, surely. There was, though, dignity in defeat this time, no repeat of the bout of sulks which stopped them from collecting the Six Nations' Trophy at Murrayfield last year. But the scenes and the emotions must have been achingly familiar to England, left to pick up the bauble when the crown jewels were heading down Grafton Street.
A spontaneous lap of honour by the Irish was richly deserved. Jason Leonard, winning his 92nd cap and equalling the international record for a forward set by Sean Fitzpatrick, led England up. But it was Ireland's day and few could argue with the 20-14 victory. Matt Dawson captain for the day and Martin Johnson, Captain Fantastic, held the trophy jointly. But their faces betrayed their hearts. They would rather have been elsewhere. The sight of the Irish being feted back to the dressing room as the champions stood self-consciously beneath a sponsors' banner announcing their achievement epitomised the wacky nature of the afternoon.
The temptation from England's perspective was to blame defeat on Johnson's taped hand. That would be to trivialise Ireland's all-round superiority. No Johnson, no Dallaglio. Irish hopes always rampant by kick-off time at Lansdowne Road rested, above all, on the absence of the England captain. Johnson prowled the touchline before kick-off as if his towering figure might somehow wake a few nightmares in the Irish ranks. The bad news was that Clive Woodward could summon to the second row if not another talisman in the Johnson mould, then an established international in the form of Simon Shaw. Neither was the inclusion of Martin Corry for Dallaglio cause for mirth in the Irish camp. Plenty would support the view that England got the better of the deal.
After half an hour, with England's line-out in disarray, the Irish winning the kicking duel and Lansdowne Road in full autumnal hue, England were being rapidly cast in the role of stooges in a classic sting. It was largely their own fault. A tendency to embellish before laying the foundations had already brought two Grand Slam challenges crashing to earth. England favoured exhibition rugby when a touch of rumble and roll was the prime requirement. "We weren't ambitious just for sake of it," said Woodward. "We are ambitious because we want to score tries, but sometimes we threw the ball wide when that option wasn't on." Dan Luger and Jason Robinson, apart from one run apiece were barely called to arms.
In Ireland, you do the simple things first and ask the questions later. The dark clouds hovered over Lansdowne Road and the flags began to swirl disconcertingly in a freshening wind. What should have been a breeze turned into an old-fashioned test of character, Ireland's favourite terrain. Martin Johnson country too.
Yet the ease with which first Phil Greening and then Mike Catt cut through in the early minutes hinted at far greater luxury. With enough ball, England's free-running backs would surely run riot. Instead, a series of uncharacteristic mistakes, by Wilkinson, Balshaw and Robinson, who burst through the centre and veered right instead of left, where three white shirts were waiting, reduced the early swagger to a desperate quickstep. All the signs that the English had taken the Irish challenge too lightly emerged in the fiasco of the line-outs, where Phil Greening insisted on throwing to the back in situations which demanded a less risky option. It smacked of arrogance.
Ireland hammered home the point when Keith Wood, in an exact replica of a line-out move moments earlier, burst from front to back of the line, gathering such momentum by the time he reached daylight that he simply had to flop forward to score the only try of the first half. A simple move, slickly executed, which justified the confidence of Scott Gibbs in backing the Irish hooker to score at odds of 25-1.
Had David Humphreys kicked from the ground as incisively as he did from hand, Ireland would have reached half-time with more than a five-point lead. Wilkinson's long-range penalty, a superb effort in tricky conditions, highlighted Humphreys' strange inadequacy, while Shaw's fumble on the stroke of half-time was equally reflective of England's lethargy.
With Dawson already hobbling off, to be replaced by Kyran Bracken, Woodward threw on Austin Healey for Luger. The England winger was unlucky, as earlier his penetrating run through the left side of the Irish defence had seemed sure of success when little Peter Stringer dived desperately for the tap tackle. For a split second it seemed Luger might stay upright, then like a giraffe he collapsed to the turf and Ireland were saved once more. When Ronan O'Gara extended Ireland's lead to 17-9 with his first kick, having replaced Humphreys, the genie had been decisively loosed. With less than 10 minutes remaining, O'Gara kicked another penalty and, at last, at last, England began to instil their play with passion.
So where now for England, a shadow of the side who romped through 11 straight victories? Back to the drawing board? That is not Woodward's way. But who knows how many hearts have been broken on the anvil of the Ireland's gallantry. Third time lucky. Sport, thankfully, does not conform to such simple rules.Reuse content