Wilkinson frees the spirit of England

England 45

Tries: Wilkinson, Cohen, Greenwood 2, Worsley, Kay

Cons: Wilkinson 6

Pen: Wilkinson

Ireland 11

Try: O'Gara

Pens: Humphreys 2
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The Independent Online

It is not only Martin Johnson who gives the impression of having a hit list. Whoever crosses England pays a punishing price, as Ireland discovered on another extraordinary afternoon at Fortress Twickenham. England, in irresistible form, turned what was expected to be a duel in the sun into a massacre. And that was before half-time.

Johnson's all-passing, all-running, all-action ensemble led 31-6 by the interval, but only "won'' the second half 14-5. "We played some of the best rugby I've ever seen at Twickenham,'' Clive Woodward, the England manager, said. "It was just wonderful. The game was over at half-time and it was difficult to keep it going, although at the break we spoke about smashing these guys. The game plan was to attack their blind-side defence and we ripped them to pieces.''

On the basis not only of their heroic victory in Dublin four months ago, or recently the annihilation of Wales, the Irish were expected to give England a run for their money. Instead, they were subjected to one of the most explosive, co-ordinated and bravura displays of the championship, a rugby version of the Blitz.

There is a backlash factor at work here. After Wales had denied England the Grand Slam at Wembley in 1999, they suffered badly at the hands of the Red Rose cavalry; Scotland, who deprived England of the slam the following season, were subsequently put to the sword and yesterday another name was ticked off the list.

England have the memory of an elephant and a menagerie full of dangerous creatures to exact retribution. It has been said before, of course, but on this evidence – fresh and startling – nobody can live with England, not only in Europe, but perhaps also the southern hemisphere. It really was Rugby Special with a vengeance.

In the opening seconds, Jonny Wilkinson missed touch and little did we know that it would be one of the few occasions in the first half that Ireland would gain possession. Wilkinson has had many memorable days at Twickenham during the course of accumulating a record number of points, but he surpassed everything that had gone before. He is still improving and yesterday he was sharper and more dangerous, running the show with a performance of great authority. "I'm trying to get better all the time," he said. "And I'm desperate to see it come off.''

It came off in spades yesterday. Ireland did not know what hit them. The England forwards set about monopolising possession, the interplay between the pack and the backs was perfectly choreographed. Forced to defend from virtually everywhere, Ireland simply ran out of personnel.

They had to keep an eye on either the effervescent Kyran Bracken or Wilkinson or Will Greenwood. Then there were Jason Robinson and Austin Healey to think about. There was no let-up, no escape. The key was not just England's fast, crisp handling but their willingness and ability to keep the ball alive. In this regard Wilkinson and Co were aided and abetted by the forwards, in particular Ben Kay and the remarkable Steve Thompson. The hooker was so conspicuous that Ireland might have thought they were facing the Thompson twins.

"Losing at Lansdowne Road was a big dent to our pride,'' Greenwood, who scored two of England's six tries, said. "It was very important to put the record straight. It was a delight to be on the field for the first 40 minutes. It was also a pleasure to play outside Wilkinson, who is so proud, intense and physical.''

So proud that the stand-off was mortified to be replaced in the 79th minute, by which time the fireworks had subsided and Ireland were given the opportunity to make an impression.

Geordan Murphy was denied a possible try by Ben Cohen's defensive work in the fifth minute but was injured in the process and took no further part. David Humphreys kicked Ireland into the lead with a penalty in the eighth minute, Wilkinson responding two minutes later.

The first indication of England's intention came when Wilkinson beat David Wallace and Greenwood and Thompson could have sent in Kay but the lock lost possession. Cohen, given an overlap on the left, hesitated and then lost the ball as he dived over the line, but a minute later made amends when he kept the ball in play. When England switched the attack to the left flank, Kay and Thompson linked and the latter delivered an inside pass to Wilkinson, who went over unopposed at the posts. Humphreys was in no position to mark his opposite number because he had been forced to tackle Thompson.

Two minutes later, in the 24th minute, Cohen rounded off an even more audacious attack with a copybook try. Fielding the ball just outside his own 22, Healey broke down the middle, Bracken and Mike Tindall maintained the move and Cohen finished it off in style.

Ireland could not even gain possession from the re-start, such was the accuracy of Wilkinson's kicking. England were now in full cry and although Humphreys landed a penalty in the 28th minute, it was merely a semi-colon to the poetry in motion. The Irish defence were again torn asunder when Thompson and Cohen combined in another slick attack which resulted in Greenwood going over unopposed. A couple of minutes later, Wilkinson, with a marvellous chip, unleashed Healey, who, in a dash to the line, shrugged off Girvan Dempsey and Brian O'Driscoll, but was caught by Denis Hickie as he was in the process of touching down. The video official made a correct call in disallowing the score and in the 39th minute, he had an easier task deciding that Joe Worsley had crossed the line before his feet went into touch.

Twenty-five points adrift, Ireland trooped off at half-time in shock. Four minutes into the second half, Wilkinson again bamboozled the defence with an electric inside pass to Kay, who dived over at the post, knocking Humphreys over in the process. Greenwood was the recipient of a lacerating move involving Wilkinson and Healey and with the stand-off landing all six conversions, England were 45-6 ahead and cruising. All 45 points had come in a dazzling 36-minute spell.

Ireland responded with a try from Ronan O'Gara and Hickie and Malcolm O'Kelly also went close. England travel to Paris to face France in a fortnight and could be without Johnson, who faces a disciplinary tribunal on Thursday. The French will need all the help they can get.

England: J Robinson (Sale); A Healey (Leicester), W Greenwood (Harlequins), M Tindall (Bath), B Cohen (Northampton); J Wilkinson (Newcastle), K Bracken (Saracens); G Rowntree (Leicester), S Thompson (Northampton), P Vickery (Gloucester), M Johnson (Leicester, capt), B Kay (Leicester), R Hill (Saracens), J Worsley (Wasps), N Back (Leicester). Replacements: J Leonard (Harlequins) for Rowntree, 16; D Grewcock (Bath) for Johnson, 61; L Moody (Leicester) for Hill, 61; I Balshaw (Bath) for Healey, 61; N Duncombe (Harlequins) for Bracken, 79; C Hodgson (Sale) for Wilkinson, 79.

Ireland: G Dempsey (Leinster); G Murphy (Leicester), B O'Driscoll (Leinster), K Maggs (Bath), D Hickie (Leinster); D Humphreys (Ulster), P Stringer (Munster); P Clohessy (Munster), F Sheahan (Munster), J Hayes (Munster), M Galwey (Munster, capt), M O'Kelly (Leinster), E Miller (Leinster), A Foley (Munster), D Wallace (Munster). Replacements: R Henderson (Munster) for Murphy, 9; R O'Gara (Munster) for Henderson, h-t; S Byrne (Leinster) for Sheahan, 54; S Easterby (Llanelli) for Miller, 58; G Longwell (Ulster) for Galwey, 58; P Wallace (Leinster) for Clohessy, 79.

Referee: P Marshall (Australia).