James Lawton: Mature intelligence of Owen Farrell provides hope for England revolution after moment of truth
Six Nations: What’s the point of a rite of passage if it doesn’t turn eager boys into real men
If there was always a good chance England rugby's young and potentially beautiful revolution would get dragged into a Dublin street fight, it paled against the other possibility. This was the one that said that England, for all their coltish promise and good intentions, faced not so much a moment of truth as a long and hurtful mugging.
They did have some perilous moments, it is true, but what's the point of a rite of passage if it doesn't turn, relatively speaking, eager and accomplished boys into properly competitive men?
This England proved themselves to be in the 12-6 victory which, while often a crushing disappointment in both technical and aesthetic terms, still left them strong favourites to carry off the Six Nations Grand Slam, which is not so bad when you consider the moral chaos handed to head coach Stuart Lancaster after that grotesque World Cup misadventure in New Zealand just over a year ago.
Most encouraging of all, surely, is the latest evidence that in 21-year-old Owen Farrell reforming England have at their heart not only a phenomenal kicking machine but also a stunningly mature working intelligence.
Farrell nailed the winning margin with his four penalties but in some ways that was the least of his achievement.
As he explained afterwards, if he you kick enough balls through enough posts on a daily basis, you can more or less do it in your sleep. Where his influence on events seems bound to grow down the years – and quite pivotally in the brief ones preceding the 2015 World Cup – is in the matter of recognising the dynamics of any game in which he finds himself.
Yesterday his captain, Chris Robshaw, was handed the man of the match award and, given the strength displayed by the recently besieged skipper in the most physically demanding places, there could be few quibbles about that. However, if you wanted to pick out the player who seemed most acutely aware of his own ability to find an edge, Farrell made a most compelling claim.
His kick into the corner near the end – which left Rob Kearney obliged to defend desperately at a time when the Irish had no option but to pursue an attacking rhythm which they had found so elusive in a haemorrhage of mistakes that started in the first minutes – had the mark of someone amounting to more than a remarkably cool operator. It was the work of someone professionally wise way beyond his years. It spoke of that understanding of how best to hurt the opposition, how to shift the action in a way a good fighter does in the ring when he knows he has to take the fight to his opponent.
Farrell, as he did so impressively in the overrunning of the Scots a week earlier, was consistently about this business of probing for weakness.
This may not have had the power to illuminate too much of the error-strewn attrition but when England lost James Haskell to the sin bin – when Ireland might still have been deeply grateful for Cian Healy's escape from any kind of live punishment for his earlier transgressions – Farrell became almost statesmanlike in his game management.
The purists might say that there wasn't a whole lot of game to manage but if this in the end was about a scuffling determination to get the result – and maintain an impressive momentum – Farrell was never far from the most meaningful action.
Nor was Ben Youngs, who gave the most impressive indication so far that he has indeed emerged from the slough which was so disappointing to all those who hailed a new and arresting talent two seasons ago.
When he first emerged, Youngs bristled with both invention and combative zeal. Now we are being reminded of that first bracing arrival and yesterday it might have been crowned by a moment that in terms of creativity left all else in its slipstream.
Youngs changed direction beautifully and sent in a kick beyond the Irish line that was a fraction from nestling in the meaty grasp of substitute Manu Tuilagi. It was the stroke of a player rediscovering some of the best of his confidence – and invention – and another reason for Lancaster to believe that a project he accepted in such unpromising circumstances is indeed beginning to take encouraging shape.
No, we didn't get the game for which there were reasons to hope. If England showed flashes of imagination, they were fleeting enough. But then it is also true that at no point before the injury to Jonathan Sexton, and the painful indicators that Brian O'Driscoll was in no position to inflict much of his old ferocious impact, was there a threat that England might suffer the kind of bombardment that undermined Wales a week earlier.
Ireland simply failed to muster a single significant threat to the England line. This, no doubt, had quite a bit to do with their failings. However, England, even when they were down to 14 men, offered them hardly a scrap of encouragement.
Farrell spoke of the immense satisfaction that comes when you have found a way to win. At the end he lingered on the field, talking amiably with Youngs and his father and attack coach Andy. You got the feeling he was reluctant to leave the rain and the wind coming in from Dublin Bay. But then why wouldn't he be? As rites of passage go, this may have been the one that announced beyond all doubt that he was ready for any test.
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