Ireland 24 England 8: Plenty for England to ponder as defeat exposes familiar frailties

THANK goodness the Guinness was not as flat as England’s performance.

Strong, full-bodied – a pint of the black stuff put the white shirts of the Red Rose to shame.

For a defining game in the progression of an England side that promised so much, this was a performance lacking fizz and sparkle.

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The opening four fixtures of this Six Nations championship had provided plenty of defiant answers to the critics of the early days of Martin Johnson’s reign.

England, full of youthful exuberance and bolstered by experienced heads, were developing a dynamism, building a head of steam towards the World Cup in New Zealand this autumn.

Victory in Dublin, and a first grand slam for eight years, would merely cement that. They left the Irish capital on Saturday night with those old questions returning about their character, nous and – when all’s said and done – ability.

Johnson’s boys were outplayed by the experienced Irishmen, and the old worries return that if Brian O’Driscoll and company can steamroll a limited England on home soil, what might Dan Carter and the All Blacks do later this year.

Fortunately, England may not have to cross New Zealand until the final – unless they make a mess of winning a group containing Argentina and Scotland, and end up playing the hosts in the quarter-final. After such an insipid 80 minutes in Dublin, such a prospect does not bare thinking about.

Despite the defeat, England have made progress this championship, and indeed over the past nine months.

This one reverse does not render the four previous tournament wins redundant. It may also keep a lid on growing expectations in the run-up to September.

The furore over the likes of Toby Flood and Ben Youngs, Chris Ashton and Ben Foden was building with every victory.

What Ireland proved – and to an extent France and Scotland in the two previous games – is that that foursome is not so awesome. They can be handled, bullied even.

Flood and Youngs were poor on Saturday. Ashton may be able to carve Italy open, but against stronger defences he still has much to learn.

The forward pack will always be a strength. James Haskell was England’s player of the tournament, yet he may have to move across the back row when Lewis Moody returns.

Courtney Lawes is also itching for a recall, and as Tom Wood has proven in these five games, players no matter how raw can adapt quickly to Test match rugby when thrown in at the deep end.

Who might emerge over the closing two months of the Premiership season?

For all the despair and crying into pint pots on Saturday night, England were still crowned Six Nations champions for the first time in eight years.

Their four wins were enough to edge out the Irish, Wales and France.

But it is a long five months to dwell on this defeat before three World Cup warm-up games, two with Wales, and a return to Lansdowne Road for the chance to exorcise the ghosts of this shattering loss.

To establish their authority as favourites, England needed to gain a foothold early on in the late evening sunshine of Dublin.

That they failed to do so, was to prove costly.

The strength of the Irish scrum and the expert kicking of Jonathan Sexton penned them in their own half.

Sexton kicked the opening penalty after Alex Corbisiero strayed offside, and then struck a second following a high tackle from Chris Ashton on the fly-half.

England then had an over-eager Tommy Bowe to thank for not being further behind.

Last year’s RBS player of the tournament executed a poor forward pass to O’Driscoll for a try which was disallowed.

Sexton compensated with another penalty before Flood, after a rare foray into opposition territory, sliced a kick wide.

Ireland were swift in their punishment. Sexton took a quick tap- penalty on a retreating England defence and fed Bowe who atoned for his earlier error by crossing the whitewash. The only surprise was Sexton was off target with the conversion.

Despite Flood eventually kicking a penalty, it got worse for the grand slam-chasers when Youngs was sin-binned for indiscipline after Foden had denied David Wallace a try down the blindside, following the flanker’s robbing of Nick Easter in midfield.

It was all over seven minutes into the second half when, after a sustained spell of pressure on the England line, O’Driscoll picked up a loose ball and darted over.

The try made O’Driscoll the competition’s all-time leading try scorer, and for the more immediate future, his presence in the backline alongside Sexton will make Ireland formidable opponents in New Zealand later this year.

Johnson responded by sending on a raft of replacements, old heads Jonny Wilkinson and Steve Thompson – the only survivors from the grand slam triumph in Dublin eight years ago – among them.

And it was Leeds Carnegie hooker Thompson who grabbed a lifeline on 54 minutes, gambling on hesitancy from Eoin Reddan to intercept the scrum-half’s pass and race in from 35 metres.

Wilkinson, though, missed the conversion, and they rarely threatened again.

Though holes were beginning to appear in the emerald wall, England, in their desperation, were bereft of ideas and lacked the composure to capitalise.

Not since duals with the southern hemisphere heavyweights have England found themselves so dominated.

It was a sobering thought over a pint of the black stuff.

Ireland: Earls, Bowe, O’Driscoll, D’Arcy (P Wallace 79), Trimble, Sexton (O’Gara 70), Reddan (Stringer 79); Healy, Best (Cronin 79), Ross (Court 58), O’Callaghan, O’Connell (Cullen 79), O’Brien, D Wallace (Leamy 72), Heaslip.

England: Foden, Ashton, Banahan, Hape, Cueto (Strettle 66), Flood (Wilkinson 51), Youngs (Care 46); Corbisiero, Hartley (Thompson 51), Cole (Doran Jones 51), Deacon (Croft 55), Palmer (Shaw 25), Wood, Haskell, Easter.

Referee: B Lawrence (New Zealand).

Scorers – Ireland: tries Bowe, O’Driscoll; cons Sexton; pens Sexton 4.

England: try Thompson; pen Flood.