James Lawton: O'Driscoll's genius writes golden tale of unexpected

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Something of England's warrior nature reappeared on a weekend of Celtic glory, but there was never enough. Indeed, if they were entirely honest with themselves, they might agree that not much short of an entire armoured division was guaranteed to halt their slide to a fourth straight defeat and their worst run for 18 years.

Their huge problem was maybe the best player in the world, certainly the best in these islands - which have just seen, first in Paris with the Welsh on Saturday, then here yesterday, a marvellous reassertion of native genius.

Ireland's captain Brian O'Driscoll was the difference and he was, to be brutally honest, something England have never had, not even during their world conquest in Australia in 2003.

O'Driscoll has a pure, overwhelming instinct to play rugby in the most expressive and biting way. His try, after an exquisite dummy by his team-mate Geordan Murphy, was improbably magnificent, the product of astonishing hand-eye co-ordination and feet which, if they were perhaps more delicately formed, might have passed muster at the Bolshoi.

But there was more to Ireland than O'Driscoll, and so much more to the Irish captain than that supreme moment of individual flair. There was that ability to reach out beyond the normal bounds of performance, to conjure something unexpected, something to overwhelm a team like England. We saw that most perfectly in the conception and the execution of this try where all England's hard and virtuous effort was put into a damning perspective.

More impressive still, in terms of sweeping vision and technical accomplishment, was maybe a beautiful take by O'Driscoll with those ultimately adhesive hands and a vast, faultless kick across field which lifted vast pressure on his team as they took up new stations a few yards from the English line.

Ireland now go forward for collisions with the French and the resurrected Welsh and these are prospects to thrill any rugby aficionado. They are also form a magnificent rebuke to that doomsday talk, much of it fuelled in England, of a Six Nations tournament which had lost its competitive base. The English juggernaut, with its vast player pool and its superb organisation, would roll on, squeezing the life out of the quixotic French and the downtrodden Welsh and Irish. That presumption, weakened by defeats in Cardiff and at home to the French at Twickenham, was formally put to the sword here yesterday.

Later, there was a poignant image down on the otherwise empty field as Andy Robinson, the embattled England coach, spoke on a mobile phone and from time to time looked up at the darkening sky, Dublin's and his own.

His misery will no doubt be compounded this week by growing pressure on his job, but the reality is that England did not play badly in Dublin. Neither team produced a technical masterpiece, as it happened, but England performed as well as their talent permitted. For the last quarter of the match they pounded against the Irish line and at one point were convinced they had forced the ball over the line before the South African referee Jonathan Kaplan ruled against them and, to the great mystification of keen students of rugby's more Kafkaesque rules, awarded a scrum with an Irish put-in.

That was one point of Irish deliverance. There were others when Charlie Hodgson, who played well enough to ridicule the campaign of vilification he suffered after being made the scapegoat for for the French defeat, moved the ball along the line with smooth efficiency. But the Irish - also with a giant in No 8 Anthony Foley, who took on to himself vast responsibility in the repelling of that last England siege - had something beyond mere functional strength. They had that quality produced so mesmerisingly by O'Driscoll in that decisive moment when, uncannily. he reached behind for the ball while still managing to keep his feet in bounds. They had an edge, a dimension which has never come to England so easily.

Sir Clive Woodward, who led England to the world crown after years of trial and error, was in the stadium and could only reflect on how quickly sport can break down any belief in the inevitability of success. Here was evidence of this reality that was utterly unimaginable two years ago, when the captain Martin Johnson six times sent Irish Rugby Union officials on their way when they pleaded for him to move his team a few yards down the field to accommodate the presentation of the teams to the president, Mary McAleese. And that was just the tip of the insult.

There had been much talk of an Irish revival before that game but Johnson and his chief lieutenant and predecessor, Lawrence Dallaglio, were unforgiving of such ambition. They ravaged the Irish hopes, winning 42 points to six, and scorching, it seemed, the very earth of Lansdowne Road.

Yesterday was the day when O'Driscoll, a broken figure that relatively recent day, rose up again and brought his rugby nation with him. He was the point of separation between raw effort and thrilling accomplishment. He served both his country and his game with a level of performance which took the bitterness out of the wind and brought instead the warmth of pure celebration.

It was the kind which comes in any stadium when a touch of genius announces itself. Woodward's next challenge is to lead the British Lions, one which will be somewhat simplified when he reaches the important decision on who will lead the team. Two weeks ago the coach had a private discussion with O'Driscoll. The word is that the coach pointed out that diplomacy was a key part of the job, and that in the past O'Driscoll had been a little too volatile for that. Later, the Irish captain said it had gone well. Yesterday you could say more than that. Yesterday you had to believe he had made the job his own.

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