England travelled to Ireland for their Six Nations tie hoping to claim their second Grand Slam since the tournament began in 2000. Before the game everyone had pointed to the fact that when they won their first Grand Slam back in 2003, they went on to win the World Cup that year in Australia. The players prior to the game talked about their chances of achieving the feat but what followed was a crushing 24-8 defeat at the hands of a pumped up Irish XV.
In what was arguably their biggest test of the tournament, England failed it dramatically. From first whistle to last they were second best as they simply failed to deal with the fierce pressure that Ireland applied throughout the 80 minutes. England however didn’t help themselves with an error strewn performance which was summed up when Ben Youngs was sinbinned for stupidly tossing the ball into the crowd before half-time.
England may have won the Six Nations after France’s victory over Wales in Paris, but it wasn’t much of a consolation. Never before had a side looked so disappointed with a Six Nation’s trophy in their hands. After the game flanker Tom Wood said, “It feels pretty much as if you’ve had your heart ripped out. We didn’t come here for scars or lessons, we came for a Grand Slam. And we got it wrong. It’s unacceptable and a bitter pill to swallow. It’ll bring us back down to Earth.”
While the disappointment will linger for some time to come, this defeat may actually be a good thing for the England side. As Wood said, it has brought the team and the fans back down to Earth. After a 26-19 victory in Wales, their first win in Cardiff in eight years, England crushed Italy at Twickenham before recording an ‘ugly win’ over France. After these three successive wins, people were talking up England’s chances of winning the Grand Slam and there were even those looking towards success at this year’s Rugby World Cup. Many though had forgotten that the France and Wales sides were not as strong as they had been in past tournaments.
There there were signs that this England side was not one that everyone was making it out to be when they narrowly beat Scotland in what coach Martin Johnson described as a ‘disjointed performance.’ Now, following the battering defeat to Ireland, there are those who admitted that they talked up the England team too soon.
However, before everyone jumps on England’s back, people must remember that this is a young side and the defeat will be a good lesson for them. Out of the 15 players that started on Saturday, ten of of them were under 25. They had 314 caps between them compared to Ireland’s 622 and only four of the XV had 30 caps or more. Even though the inexperience of the side was exposed by the ferocity of the opposition, the future is clearly bright with the likes of Ben Youngs and Chris Ashton having starred in the previous games.
Admittedly, these two players endured a torrid time on Saturday but they can only learn from their chastening experience. These two are the future for English rugby but to become leading players, you need to have a few bumps along the away. After the game Ben Youngs offered a brutal assessment of his own performance. “I played like an idiot. I have to man up and take it on the chin and now it’s a good test of character to see what I am made up. When asked about his sin binning, he said, ‘If nothing else, I’ve learned something. I’ll never do that again.”
Coach Martin Johnson has said that England must wear the defeat like a scar. “This is a scar and we’ll have to wear that scar,” said the 2003 World Cup winning captain. “Do you have to get scars and bruises before you win something? You hope not, but Ireland had theirs before they won the Grand Slam in 2009. I told the players we’ll take this on the chin.”
This response is a clear sign that Johnson wants his team to learn from the defeat and make sure that they don’t make the same type of mistakes again. If they had won the Grand Slam, then the expectations for the World Cup would have been exaggerated. Now, having been on the end of defeat there will be less pressure as everyone knows that this team has some improving to do if they are to challenge the likes of New Zealand and Australia come September.