By Mark Jones
DUBLIN — You recall Ireland’s recent 50-point demolition of Wales in the Six Nations championship. That was a confident, ruthless, fast-moving Irish side. Lansdowne Road fans, it seemed, had seen the future. Now that performance seems like another time, another planet.
If a reality check was needed, it arrived last Saturday in London, where new coach Eddie O’Sullivan saw his team torn apart by England at Twickenham, 45-11. So dominant were the opposition, so superior in every area of the pitch, that a hopelessly one-sided game was over by halftime.
At that stage, Ireland were distinctly fortunate to be just 31-6 in arrears. For players who had been chasing shadows, holding rampant England to 31 points was in fact an achievement. Only a combination of the winners’ occasional blips and lady luck prevented this from becoming one of rugby’s great humiliations.
Admittedly, the English were awesome during that first period. It was as near to total rugby as the current Six Nations champions have come. Backs, forwards — it didn’t matter — they attacked from every corner, running Ireland ragged with a sumptuous mixture of power and subtlety.
Four tries were scored in that first half — it could easily have been six or seven — and another two just after the changeover as captain Mick Galwey and his shell-shocked players failed to use the interval as a natural pause in the proceedings.
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Predictably, then, England were unable to maintain the quality of their play. Maybe a touch of humanity prevented them from kicking an opponent when he’s down and out. Just as predictably, Ireland caught their breath and eventually scored a try through replacement Ronan O’Gara. It was no consolation — the damage had been done.
A bitterly disappointed O’Sullivan claimed that even on the back of that memorable victory over Wales, the visit to Twickenham was always going to be fraught.
“We never said this couldn’t happen,” he said. “I said all along that if England got that sort of possession, it would be a very difficult day for anybody. We knew that if they got any sort of momentum, we would be in a little trouble.”
In truth, the Irish contributed to their own downfall. In the space of the first two minutes, there were two turnovers: Frankie Sheahan threw the ball crooked into a line-out and Brian O’Driscoll, of all people, missed an important tackle.
For all England’s class — and out-half Jonny Wilkinson in particular performed breathtakingly during the first half — there were far too many missed tackles, dropped passes and line-out errors by the Irish. Sheahan looked out of his depth before being replaced. David Humphreys and Anthony Foley, who had both been outstanding against Wales, were anonymous, while only Denis Hickie came out of the game with any plus points.
There was some bad luck in that both Geordan Murphy and the player who replaced him, Rob Henderson, both suffered injuries that will keep out of the game against Scotland in Dublin a week from Saturday. Unfortunately, Keith Wood is unlikely to return because of injury, so it is likely that the veteran Galwey will be given another opportunity.
“A lot of things were wrong, but not everything was wrong,” O’Sullivan said. “There were a lot of things right against Wales, but not everything was right. So we’ve got to keep a balanced view of it. We have to be sure to put in a good performance against the Scots.”
With England and France now heading for a showdown in Paris that will decide the championship, the Irish don’t quite have to go back to the drawing board. Back to reality is more like it.
IRELAND: G. Dempsey; G. Murphy, B. O’Driscoll, K. Maggs, D. Hickie; D. Humphreys, P. Sringer; P. Clohessy, F. Sheahan, J. Hayes, M. O’Kelly, M. Galwey, E. Miller, D. Wallace, A. Foley. Subs: R. Henderson for Murphy, 9 mins.; R. O’Gara for Henderson, half-time; S. Byrne for Sheahan, 53 mins.; G. Longwell for Galwey, S. Easterby for Miller, both 58 mins.; P. Wallace for Clohessy, 78 mins.