Robinson's bad luck obscures key errors in team selection

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The Independent Online

On top of everything else - an everything that includes serious personnel issues in at least three positions, an attacking game boasting the dash and devil of a wet weekend in Weymouth and a collective brittleness that would earn them a place in a packet of Ryvita - England can now consider themselves an unlucky team. This may be the worst news of all for the world champions. Napoleon knew a thing or two when he expressed a preference for generals blessed with good fortune. Assuming England have some generals among their number, their gods do not go with them.

"It shouldn't come down to luck," muttered Martin Corry, the captain, after a Six Nations finale at Twickenham that saw the Triple Crowners from Ireland prevail with a try seven minutes into stoppage time, having already scored two others with the help of touch-judging decisions that stretched credulity further than the elastic in Cyril Smith's underwear. Corry struck precisely the right note; there is only one thing less popular than a loser, and that is a bad loser. But the truth of it could be witnessed in the dying seconds of the game, as a bitterly frustrated Matt Dawson vented his spleen at the officials with the ball still in play.

England were not happy. Not happy at all. Andy Robinson, who needed this defeat in the way a starving man needs an empty fridge, was especially exasperated by the first of the wing Shane Horgan's tries, in which the right touch-line played a brief but highly noticeable role.

"It should have been a line-out," Robinson insisted. "It wasn't even 50-50. I'm absolutely staggered. I can't see how a touch-judge can allow a try like that to be scored." This was not typical of the England coach, who generally lets his alligator's smile to the talking when there is something pointed to be said. As he also stamped his foot over the decision to disallow a quick throw-in from Ben Cohen in favour of a full line-out from which Denis Leamy, the outstanding No 8 from Cork, robbed Lewis Moody of the ball and juggled his way over for a converted score just shy of the hour, it can be taken as read that Robinson's vegetarianism did not prevent him chewing the ears of the all-Celtic officiating trio at Saturday night's banquet.

Yet Ireland were decent value for their victory - their third in succession over England since Martin Johnson infuriated the Emerald Isle on Grand Slam day in 2003 by refusing to stand in his allocated place for the pre-match formalities and forcing President Mary McAleese to walk halfway round Dublin in her high heels, just for the privilege of shaking him by the paw. They were livelier in the back row, made a mess of the English line-out at important moments and were infinitely more threatening out wide, a fact reinforced by Horgan's wonderful finish at the last knockings. Moody stopped the big Leinsterman once with a cover tackle that must rank alongside the best of his career, but when he tried it a second time a few moments later, his opponent was too strong and too precise in reaching over at the flag.

Having ditched half their team in the aftermath of the Paris débâcle six days previously, England might have been expected to bring something new to their act. In the event, they were perfectly proficient in their area of greatest strength - they scrummaged their opponents to hell and back, as per usual - and under-performed in the areas of greatest concern. The loose trio of Moody, Corry and Joe Worsley did not engage with each other in the way Ireland's more balanced triumvirate of Leamy, Simon Easterby and David Wallace connected; the back division did not function as an attacking unit, despite the slow but undeniable flowering of Andy Goode, making his first international start at outside-half.

Time and again, England were stretched by the Irish the moment green shirts found a yard of space. The home side started with a hiss and a roar, Goode hitting Jamie Noon with a cut-out pass in the opening 90 seconds and presenting the brick-hard Newcastle centre with a clear sight of the line, which he duly reached in Gordon D'Arcy's tackle. But Horgan's dodgy opening try erased the advantage, and Ireland would have led by more than three points at the interval had Peter Stringer not wasted a penalty opportunity with a gormless tap-and-go attempt, Geordan Murphy not run left when an overlap cried out for him to run right and Brian O'Driscoll, of all people on the face of the earth, not butchered a scoring pass to D'Arcy in the left corner.

Try as they might, England could not wreak havoc on a comparable scale. More ponderous in creating their patterns - if indeed various shades of grey with the odd splodge of cowpat brown can be called a pattern - they finally created a try at the sticks for the hard-working lock Steve Borthwick, who slipped between those mighty defensive pillars, Marcus Horan and Malcolm O'Kelly, for his first Test score. But as a rough contest grew increasingly spiteful in the final half-hour, there was no hint of a third English try. Goode kicked his goals with increasing confidence, but Ireland were the ones with the whiff of danger about them.

Robinson contributed to that peril by mixing and matching his back three in an experiment that saw Cohen spend the lion's share of his time at full-back. If it surprised the Irish, it appeared to surprise the Northampton player a whole lot more. Generally speaking, Cohen and options are uncomfortable bedfellows - the more thinking he has to do, the less he likes it. Sure enough, the rolling ball was an embarrassment to him; it was Cohen's failure to deal with the least threatening of upfield kicks that led to Horgan's first try, in the eighth minute.

There was equally little to be said for the decision to drop Danny Grewcock from the starting line-up. For the first time in the tournament - indeed, for the first time since Borthwick has been running the England line-out - the home side struggled on their own ball. Indeed, they ended the contest with a 75 per cent return, rather than their customary 100 per cent. There were a number of factors: the occasional poor throw from Lee Mears, an over-ambitious call from Borthwick here and there, some muscular brilliance from Paul O'Connell. But all things considered, the line-out went wrong because the strengths of Grewcock's replacement, Simon Shaw, lay elsewhere. The man is 19st and barely liftable. If Robinson is serious about playing him, he should drop one of his front-rowers and pick a crane.

Some of the coach's many personnel changes worked out fine. Goode showed great character and composure when the battle was at its hottest, Stuart Abbott lost nothing to D'Arcy in midfield, Julian White scrummaged even more aggressively than usual. But when Robinson talks about the "tiny margins" that condemned him to a third straight defeat for the second championship in succession, he must realise that a couple of poor selections count for just as much as the visually-challenged officiating that so infuriated him. As someone other than Napoleon famously said, you make your own luck in this game.

England: T Voyce (Wasps); M Cueto (Sale), J Noon (Newcastle), S Abbott (Wasps), B Cohen (Northampton); A Goode (Leicester), H Ellis (Leicester); A Sheridan (Sale), L Mears (Bath), J White (Leicester), S Shaw (Wasps), S Borthwick (Bath), J Worsley (Wasps), L Moody (Leicester), M Corry (Leicester, capt). Replacements: M Tindall (Gloucester) for Noon, 31-40 & h-t; S Thompson (Northampton) for Mears, 65; D Grewcock (Bath) for Shaw, 65; M Dawson (Wasps) for Ellis, 71; P Freshwater (Perpignan) for Sheridan, 73.

Ireland: G Murphy (Leicester); S Horgan (Leinster), B O'Driscoll (Leinster, capt), G D'Arcy (Leinster), A Trimble (Ulster); R O'Gara (Munster), P Stringer (Munster); M Horan (Munster), J Flannery (Munster), J Hayes (Munster), M O'Kelly (Leinster), P O'Connell (Munster), S Easterby (Llanelli Scarlets), D Wallace (Munster), D Leamy (Munster). Replacements: J O'Connor (Wasps) for Wallace, 19-28 & for Leamy, 77; D O'Callaghan (Munster) for O'Kelly, 52; G Dempsey (Leinster) for Trimble, 69.

Referee: N Whitehouse (Wales).

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