It is very nearly 20 years since England last lost four internationals on the bounce, and it is a whole lot longer since they ran into a referee who gave them less of an even break. Jonathan Kaplan inflicted such unmitigated grief on the red rose army yesterday that the one-eyed performance of his countryman, Andre Watson, during the 2003 World Cup final in Sydney seemed positively Anglocentric by comparison. It is probably as well that Sir Clive Woodward is safely out of the loop. Had he been coaching the visitors here, he would have bounced off every roof in Dublin's fair city.
"To be sure, there'll be a couple of pints for the ref in O'Donohue's," said one of the Irish ancients in the old west stand as the dust settled on a mean, moody, muscle-bound contest wholly dominated by the two forward packs. "He'll do better than that," said his colleague. "They'll give him the honeymoon suite in the Berkeley Court Hotel."
Neither eventuality would have surprised the England players. Eight months previously, when Kaplan presided over a terrible hiding at the hands of the All Blacks in Dunedin, he was the least of their problems. This time, he was quite the opposite.
During stoppage time at the end of the first half, the official ruled out Mark Cueto's try after deciding the Sale wing was a few millimetres outside of the law in chasing a beautifully judged cross-kick from his club-mate, Charlie Hodgson. Kaplan's call was marginal in the extreme; certainly, the consensus of opinion among the defeated was that Cueto timed his run to perfection. The referee had very definitely been at fault a few minutes earlier when Martin Corry spilled a kick from Girvan Dempsey. Anyone with half-decent vision could see that the ball went backwards, but Kaplan called a knock-on and from the scrum Ronan O'Gara landed a drop goal to give his side a 12-10 lead.
If England were muttering about the injustice of life then, they were positively roaring about it as the clock ticked down on a second half they controlled to an almost embarrassing degree in terms of possession and territory. With the Irish pack in reverse gear, a white-shirted drive with the excellent Josh Lewsey at its epicentre surged across the goal-line, spewing out green-shirted opponents in all directions. England claimed the try - the very least they expected was a long and meaningful consultation with the video referee - but Kaplan thought otherwise, signalling the ball had been held off the floor. By way of really getting the English goat, he then awarded the scrum to Ireland, who almost collapsed with shock before clearing their lines. The visitors were incandescent, and with good reason.
The shop-soiled world champions had displayed a singular lack of common sense, both in team selection and strategic execution, in the first two rounds of the tournament, and had deserved pretty much everything they received from Wales and France. But they were cruelly done by yesterday, none more so than Corry, whose contribution at No 8 was on the massive side of mighty. Another Leicester back-rower, Lewis Moody, made light of a miserable week of hospitalisation and antibiotic torment to run his heart out for the cause - his contest with that supreme burglar of opposition possession, Johnny O'Connor, was compelling - while Hodgson recovered from his pratfall of a fortnight previously to outplay his opposite number and Lions candidate, Ronan O'Gara. Hodgson, hounded for his lack of accuracy with the boot, even kicked a 50-metre penalty - an "up yours" moment of considerable resonance.
Ireland would not have felt particularly cheated had they lost, for the front-line players in their pack - Paul O'Connell, Malcolm O'Kelly and Anthony Foley - failed to stamp their personalities on proceedings. Indeed, England finished the game far the stronger. Even Matt Stevens, considered by his critics to be "a bit of a Maureen", to borrow a phrase from the front-row lexicon, looked entirely comfortable at the set-piece, and he drew on his encouraging scrummaging performance to carry the ball into the soft underbelly of the Irish defence.
Yet for all their possession - they had twice as much as Ireland in the second period - England could not extract full value from their supremacy. Behind to an opening drop goal from O'Gara, they did manage a soft early try when Ireland's fringe tacklers went missing in action and allowed Corry a free run to the line. But despite Lewsey's industry, Hodgson's space-creating artistry and some promising touches from Olly Barkley and Jamie Noon in midfield, there was something frustratingly blunt about their attacking game. Only when Hodgson kicked diagonally for the lurkers on the wing - Cueto usually, Ben Kay occasionally - were the Irish made to scramble for their lives.
A Brian O'Driscoll or a Geordan Murphy would probably have made the difference. Sadly for England, they were playing for the other lot. Sure enough, these were the men who seized the moment at the end of the third quarter. Denis Hickie found clear blue water after giving Noon the slip with a touch on the afterburner, and when Murphy wrong-footed the covering Hodgson with a magical show of the ball, O'Driscoll combined the balance of a mountain goat with the pace of a cheetah to pelt down the right touchline for the crucial try. Ireland had not played particularly well before that score, and did not play at all well after it. But in those few seconds, their world-class players delivered, cash on the nail. It was breathtaking.
If England are now miles off the Six Nations pace - as Oscar Wilde might have said, they are down in the gutter, not looking at the stars - Ireland are ahead of the game. They will have to perform far better than this if they are to survive the visit of France, but should a Grand Slam decider with Wales come to pass, it will be unmissable.
Man of the match: Martin Corry. A performance of huge commitment, as befits the conscience of the England team.
Moment of the match Brian O'Driscoll's try. Call it genius. Ireland's captain contributed the one moment of world class in the game.
We never take a win over England lightly. We had chances to close the match down but we couldn't take them. We made hard work of it.
Ireland's Ronan O'Gara
I thought that Mark Cueto scored a perfectly good try, and he [Jonathan Caplan, the referee] should have gone to the video referee on Josh Lewsey [who had a try disallowed]. It is how we use the technology. It is there, and it should be used. I am still trying to work out the Cueto try. I have looked at both, and they both looked tries.
Andy Robinson, the England coach
I wouldn't say we were robbed, some decisions go with you and some go against you. Today they went against us.
England's Mark Cueto
We are delighted. England played pretty well which makes it sweeter. There was a feeling last year that England didn't play well and we didn't get the credit but not this time.
Ireland coach Eddie O'Sullivan
This was our best performance in the championship this season, and we just need that little bit of luck. If a couple of decisions had gone our way, it could have been a famous victory for us.
IRELAND: G Murphy (Leicester); G Dempsey (Leinster), B O'Driscoll (Leinster, capt), S Horgan (Leinster), D Hickie (Leinster); R O'Gara (Munster), P Stringer (Munster); R Corrigan (Leinster), S Byrne (Leinster), J Hayes (Munster), M O'Kelly (Leinster), P O'Connell (Munster), S Easterby (Llanelli Scarlets), J O'Connor (Wasps), A Foley (Munster). Replacement: M Horan (Munster) for Corrigan 70.
ENGLAND: J Robinson (Sale, capt); M Cueto (Sale), J Noon (Newcastle), O Barkley (Bath), J Lewsey (Wasps); C Hodgson (Sale), H Ellis (Leicester); G Rowntree (Leicester), S Thompson (Northampton), M Stevens (Bath), D Grewcock (Bath), B Kay (Leicester), J Worsley (Wasps), L Moody (Leicester), M Corry (Leicester). Replacement: M Dawson (Wasps) for Ellis 75.
Referee: J Kaplan (South Africa).
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