England, with their highly impressive, efficient, ruthless brand of play, not only proved themselves to be supreme in Europe, but following on from their victories over Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, proved themselves to be the undisputed world’s best team.
Despite the embarrassing final scoreline, it was strange that the Irish didn’t have to deal with any recriminations. Most of the points came in the closing 20 minutes when the home focus had shifted away from slam dreams to fears of being slam-dunked, and as Ireland chased the game in desperation they were bound to concede more tries.
And despite the fact that Brian O’Driscoll, Peter Stringer and Victor Costello made little impact, and that Denis Hickie had a game he’ll want to forget, it was England’s sheer excellence that dominated the post-mortems. During the first-half, the Irish were exuberant, positive and expansive, but every attack was met by an impenetrable white wall.
England’s defense was so all-encompassing, so utterly unforgiving, that the prospect of buying a match ticket at face value was more real than Ireland ever crossing the visitors’ line. Time and again, the green jerseys recycled the ball and passed it wide in a forlorn search for space. Then they moved it again, and again, only to find themselves right back where they started. Rugby is game of going forward, and England’s devastating tackling meant that O’Driscoll and his teammates went only sideways and occasionally backward.
The game was alive at the interval with Ireland trailing by just 13-6. But already they’d conceded a soft try to Lawrence Dallaglio and David Humphreys had missed a relatively easy penalty. In reality, the home side were simply hanging on as England prepared to move in for the kill.
A barnstorming try by center Mike Tindall after an hour opened the floodgates, and three more were to follow from Will Greenwood, who scored two, and substitute Dan Luger. Prompting and inspiring all the while was playmaker Jonny Wilkinson, whose outstanding contribution included a couple of right-footed drop goals which wasn’t bad for a left-footed player. Rivaling Wilkinson for the MVP award was Dallaglio whose lethal blend of brain and brawn proved too much for the Irish forwards.
Despite the humbling result, it had been a generally positive championship for coach Eddie O’Sullivan and his players. They hadn’t performed that well, with the exception of an impressive spell against the Scots, but they’d won four games. Winning, and not performing at peak, is conventionally regarded as the sign of a good team.
As England prepared to receive the trophy — after three Grand Slam decider cock-ups in 1999, 2000 and 2001 this was clearly a special moment — O’Sullivan stood inside a circle of his players and gave them his verdict. “We were disappointed but I wanted them to hold their heads up, stick their chests out and be proud of the performances they gave,” he said. “They didn’t leave anything behind and there’s a lot to take out of the season. I couldn’t ask any more from a bunch of lads and I wanted them to know that.”
With such a thriving black market for tickets, it was no surprise that as many as 20,000 English supporters were inside the ground, but if there was ever as lusty a rendition of the Irish national anthem as was sung just before the start, then most perennial Lansdowne Road patrons had never heard it. The atmosphere was electric, spoiled only by the England’s team refusal to stand in their allotted places for the pre-match presentations.
Their stubbornness meant that President Mary McAleese risked sinking her high heels into the turf as she was forced to carry out the Irish round of handshakes off the red carpet, but if some felt it was bad manners, it was more the start of England’s blunt refusal to be pushed around on or off the pitch.
In fact, it was only time that captain Martin Johnson and his players strayed offside so composed and clinical were they. An error by Stringer was seized on by Matt Dawson and then Dallaglio for the opening try and although Humphreys was on target with a drop goal and a long-range penalty, Wilkinson was beginning to control the game.
“We tried as hard as we could, but we were just beaten by the best side in the world,” said Ireland captain O’Driscoll. During the build-up, there were T-shirts doing the rounds in Dublin with “In BOD we trust” emblazoned on the front.
Fifty-five years after the only Irish Grand Slam, it was wishful thinking.
Ireland: G. Murphy; J. Bishop, B. O’Driscoll, K. Maggs, D. Hickie; D. Humphreys, P. Stringer; M. Horan, S. Byrne, J. Hayes, G. Longwell, M. O’Kelly, V. Costello, K. Gleeson, A. Foley. Subs: P. O’Connell for Longwell, 56 mins.; R. O’Gara for Humphreys, 63 mins.; A. Quinlan for Costello, 65 mins.; J. Fitzpatrick for Horan, 75 mins.; G. Dempsey for O’Driscoll, 80 mins.