Owen Farrell kicked England to their first RBS 6 Nations victory over Ireland in Dublin for a decade as Stuart Lancaster's men signalled their title credentials at the Aviva Stadium.
The kids in the Under-20s had been beaten in Athlone; the semi-professionals had gone under in Cork; the women, rated the best in the world, had been shredded in County Meath. For a desperate quarter of an hour in Dublin yesterday, it seemed the shop-window team might go the same way and plunge English rugby into quadruple-dip regression. If ever there was a moment for an inexperienced side to find the best of itself, this was it – and sure enough, Chris Robshaw and company drew deep from a bottomless well of competitive spirit to win a brutally hard contest that was spiced by a red peppering of violence.
They are now the only unbeaten side in this season’s Six Nations, and are good value for their status. Stronger, more battle-hardened England teams than this one have failed to make the remotest sense of rugby life in this most passionate of union cities – a variety of national coaches, from Geoff Cooke and Clive Woodward to Brian Ashton and Martin Johnson have headed out of town in a state of advanced befuddlement – yet the current boss, Stuart Lancaster, was able to laud the composure, the technical discipline and the sheer bloody-mindedness of an outfit still in his Test infancy.
“It’s right up there as a victory,” the Cumbrian said in the immediate aftermath of an old-style, bitterly-contested battle in wet, freezing conditions at the venue England have come to fear and loathe more than any in the northern hemisphere: more than Stade de France in the suburbs of Paris or the Millennium Stadium, smack in the middle of Cardiff…more even than Murrayfield, that graveyard of a stadium on the outskirts of Edinburgh. “When I look back to some of the places we’ve been over the last year and compare them with this, I think this is as tough as any. It really is a very difficult place for us to play.”
Too right. The difficulty was such that having righted many of the wrongs of the recent past – a deeply humiliating past, when it comes to tournament rugby – by controlling the first half pretty much from the get-go, England found themselves in extremis in the third quarter, which was perhaps the time they least expected it. Six points up through the boot of Owen Farrell, an outside-half who somehow plays hotter the colder he gets, they forfeited that advantage in a farrago of errors that would have fatally undermined the self-belief of a lesser group.
England’s scrummaging, wholly convincing throughout the opening stanza, went wrong twice in the space of a couple of minutes as the Irish tight forwards, their ears no doubt ringing from the interval rollicking they received from their coaching staff, decided they would not be going down without a fight. If the sudden set-piece issues bore the hallmarks of a temporary system failure, the individual mistakes were also coming thick and fast: Chris Ashton, miles out of sorts on the right wing, was flapping at opponents rather than tackling them; Tom Youngs was allowing his line-out throwing to go squint; James Haskell, outstanding in many ways, was given a 10-minute break without the option for flicking his foot at the ball while laying prone at the bottom of a ruck.
Coaches talk of “compound” errors, and at this point, England were compounding for all they were worth. Ronan O’Gara, summoned from the bench when the Lions No 10-in-waiting Jonathan Sexton twanged a hamstring in fly-hacking a loose ball downfield, landed two penalties to square it and the visitors, now a man short, were in a mighty bad place.
Enter Farrell, once more. Driven along by the indefatigable Robshaw – the England captain’s relentlessness with and without the ball earned him the man of the match gong, just ahead of the faultless full-back Alex Goode – the red-rose pack generated a fresh head of steam, giving their playmaker-in-chief a quality slice of possession going forward. Farrell shaped to pass, then slid a millimetre-perfect grubber kick towards the left corner, forcing the Irish full-back Rob Kearney into conceding the line-out. Suddenly, it was the home side who found themselves up to their eyeballs in the you-know-what.
Farrell’s moment of inspiration could easily have broken the try-scoring deadlock, as well as the one on the scoreboard: Ben Youngs’ chip into the in-goal area just eluded Manu Tuilagi, who, on another day and with a more reliable pair of hands, might have claimed a priceless five-pointer. Instead, England were awarded another penalty, which Farrell pinged over from a “gimme” position in the enemy red zone.
All this with the influential Haskell off the field? Yes – and there was more to come. When Courtney Lawes brought Kearney to earth with a brilliant open-field tackle on 64 minutes and ended up in the furthest reaches of la-la land as a consequence, Mike Brown forced the Irishman into conceding a “no release” penalty some 30 metres out. Again, Farrell stepped forward and, with another of his strangely conspiratorial final glances at the sticks, took aim. Again, he was bang on the money. It pretty much signalled the end of Ireland’s resistance, although there might have been a nervous finish had O’Gara not fluffed a straightforward penalty opportunity of his own 10 minutes from time.
Eighteen points, all from the kicking tee, is not generally the stuff of which great rugby matches are made in the modern era, and this encounter fell some way short of greatness. But there was much to admire, particularly Robshaw’s enthusiasm for the fray, which borders on the unnatural, and Goode’s highly-developed skills of anticipation, which yesterday bordered on the sublime. There was also some close-quarter skulduggery of a kind wholly familiar to 1970s audiences, but something of a rarity now.
Cian Healy, the loose-head prop from the Clontarf district of the Fair City, gave his direct opponent Dan Cole a fair old stamping at a first-half ruck, thereby instigating a free-for-all in which those England forwards who most relish a little how’s-your-father when the rest of polite society is in church, Tom Youngs and Tom Wood, could not help but join in. Healy may hear more of the matter, especially if the citing officials also decide he landed a punch on Joe Marler a few minutes later.
But it would be wrong to suggest the pugilistic excesses were too far out of order, for they were wholly in keeping with a game that was brick-hard from start to finish. And perhaps for the first time since the Grand Slam year – and, indeed, the World Cup-winning year – of 2003, it was England who won the scrap. It may turn out to be this team’s rite of passage.