For the third time in succession, England were pickpocketed of their Grand Slam. Three years ago, Scott Gibbs burst through in the dying moments at Wembley; last year a combination of driving rain and Scottish tenacity cost England the coveted final prize.
This time, in a match delayed for seven months by the outbreak of foot and mouth, there could be no excuses. The weather was primed for the sort of thrilling, free-running, rugby with which England have broken all scoring records in this ancient championship, and Lansdowne Road looked a picture in bright sunshine. But it was the Irish, brimful of belief and passion, not the English who fully exploited the broad canvas.
Clive Woodward, the manager, was as baffled as England's supporters by the 20-14 defeat. "We didn't play well under pressure, but we can't be moaning or whingeing," he said. "We have no excuses. We trained well, we were expected to win and we lost. That's the story."
For the Irish, victories over England are always sweet. This, their first for seven years, was fully justified and thoroughly deserved. England, deprived through injury of Martin Johnson and Lawrence Dallaglio, were never allowed to settle and were bullied into making a series of elementary mistakes. "I couldn't believe the number of penalties we gave away," said Woodward. "Maybe we tried to be a bit too ambitious."
Fittingly, Keith Wood scored the Irish try after 12 minutes. David Humphreys kicked three penalties and Ronan O'Gara, his replacement in the second half, added two more. In reply, Jonny Wilkinson kicked three penalties and Austin Healey dashed over for the England try three minutes from the end to cut the deficit to six points and set up an epic finale.
Even then, England might have won, but Danny Grewcock ignored a four-man overlap in the dying seconds. When the euphoria had evaporated, the Irish too will be kicking themselves. An inexplicable lapse against Scotland cost Ireland the chance of their first Grand Slam in 53 years. "The Irish were awesome," Matt Dawson, the stand-in England captain, admitted. "We knew they would overperform and they did, but it's unbelievable that this has happened to us again."
England now turn their attention back to a series of autumn internationals, beginning with Australia. "At least we don't have to wait six months," added Woodward. "We've got a great chance of putting this behind us against Australia." England's consolation prize was the Six Nations trophy, awarded surreptitiously while most at Lansdowne Road were preparing for a long night.Reuse content