Brian O’Driscoll turned in a man-of-the-match display as his second half haul of a try and a drop goal helped inspire Ireland to a hard-earned RBS 6 Nations victory over England at Croke Park. The result leaves Ireland two points clear at the top of the Championship table.
2009 RBS 6 NATIONS CHAMPIONSHIP: Saturday, February 28
IRELAND 14 ENGLAND 13, Croke Park
Scorers: Ireland: Try: Brian O’Driscoll; Pens: Ronan O’Gara 2; Drop: Brian O’Driscoll
England: Try: Delon Armitage; Con: Andy Goode; Pens: Toby Flood, Delon Armitage
With Wales losing to France on Friday, Ireland’s one-point defeat of England means they are now out on their own at the top of the RBS 6 Nations standings ahead of their final games away to Scotland and Wales.
Once again, Brian O’Driscoll was a central figure for Declan Kidney’s side. The team captain put in a Herculean effort in defence and attack and scored his third try in as many Championship games, setting the Irish on the road to a fifth victory in their last six meetings with England.
This was as physical a Test as Ireland will play and O’Driscoll, who took his share of hard hits in the second half, admitted as much afterwards.
It was a real war of attrition, packed full of earth-shuddering tackles and defence-dominated phases. Gradually, with their discipline and fitness levels coming to the fore, Ireland foraged ahead after a first half that had ended 3-3.
Ronan O’Gara and Toby Flood swapped penalties in a closely-fought opening period but the hosts found more rhythm on the restart and a drop goal and try from O’Driscoll moved them 11-3 ahead.
England’s chances were severely dented by yellow cards for Phil Vickery and Danny Care.
Nonetheless, sandwiching a penalty from O’Gara, England full-back Delon Armitage jangled Irish nerves when he booted a long range penalty and scored a last-minute try which replacement Andy Goode converted.
England’s late heroics cut the gap to just a single point but Ireland, with their forwards immense once again, held on to claim a deserved win.
Ireland fielded an unchanged team for the third consecutive game, with tighthead prop John Hayes winning his 92nd cap and equalling Malcolm O’Kelly’s caps record.
Toby Flood was restored to the out-half berth by England manager Martin Johnson, meaning a bench role for Andy Goode.
That was Johnson’s only change to the side that lost to Wales last time out and England travelled to Croke Park needing a win to stay in the title race.
A cacophony of noise greated the teams as they entered the Jones’s Road cauldron, the lower tiers of the stands and the Hill were blanketed in green as flags fluttered and supporters stood to acclaim the players.
Emotions ran high as the anthems were played and tears were visible on some players’ faces, including Hayes and O’Gara.
Once the action got underway, it was clear that neither defence was going to budge and play was kept largely between the two 22-metre lines.
With former Ireland defence coach Mike Ford in their ranks, England had obviously done their homework and the half degenerated into a stalemate.
Both sides were guilty of some poor kicking and although Ireland had the better of possession, chances to attack were few and far between for the likes of Tommy Bowe and Luke Fitzgerald.
The lively Bowe chased down a deft kick from Tomas O’Leary which bounced invitingly over the English try-line but Mark Cueto read the move and was first to the ball.
Uncharacteristically, O’Gara missed his first two penalty attempts, both from the left-hand side, as Ireland looked to chalk up the opening points of the match.
O’Gara came into the game needing 11 points to overhaul England’s Jonny Wilkinson as the all-time top points scorer in the International Championship (Five and Six Nations).
But the tension increased when the Munster out-half missed the target on those two occasions and good work by Paul O’Connell, Stephen Ferris and David Wallace went unrewarded.
Although Ireland enjoyed a 59% share of first half possession, England did have their moments in attack.
The visitors’ centre pairing of Mike Tindall and Riki Flutey were well shackled by O’Driscoll and Paddy Wallace and early on the English midfield failed to make use of overlaps.
Joe Worsley, the man-of-the-match from the Welsh game, covered every blade of grass and finished as the top tackler at Croke Park.
But physically, Ireland were shading it. There were some ferious tackles put in by all three lines of the Irish packs and O’Driscoll and Fitzgerald, who caught Harry Ellis with a peach of a tackle, set the tone for the backs.
O’Driscoll intercepted a pass from Flood which almost created a try-scoring opportunity but England closed off the gap and infringed at ruck time, allowing O’Gara to boot Ireland into a 29th minute lead.
Nick Kennedy and O’Connell were the game’s outstanding lineout jumpers but late in the half, a lineout ball squirted free from O’Connell’s grasp in the Irish 22.
Lee Mears took it on and scrambled his way towards the Irish posts and with a penalty called at the ruck, Flood stepped up to level the game for half-time.
The third quarter was really where Ireland built the platform for this win. Indiscipline was creeping more and more into England’s game and James Haskell and then Flood gave away sloppy penalties.
O’Gara missed a third penalty attempt, two minutes into the second half. His 38-metre effort bounced down off a post but three minutes later O’Driscoll flung his fifth Test drop goal through the uprights to move Ireland back in front.
O’Driscoll took the option as Ireland had a penalty advantage. Kidney’s charges were beginning to dominate up front and O’Gara was kicking to the corners more, forcing England to concede chunks of territory.
Ferris launched a counter attack on the left which ended with O’Driscoll being taken out by Armitage after he had kicked ahead.
Armitage was a touch fortunate to stay on the pitch as referee Craig Joubert kept his yellow card in his pocket, yet Ireland were soon just metres out from the English try-line.
They kicked the resulting penalty to touch and off the lineout, Hayes squirmed his way forward and inched ever closer to the whitewash. The Irish forwards picked and drove in a furious few minutes of attacking play.
England’s defence was resolute but prop Vickery was rightly whistled up for killing the ball in front of the posts and Joubert sent him to the sin-bin.
Facing a seven-man pack, Ireland opted for a scrum and although they were repelled from subsequent close range drives, O’Driscoll was able to dip under the tackle of Kennedy and make the line for a 57th minute try.
An off-colour O’Gara missed the conversion from the left and England showed they were not going to lie down easily when replacement Mathew Tait tore through a gap.
Had he had better support, Tait might have engineered a try but Ireland quickly regrouped and gained a relieving penalty which O’Gara dispatched to touch.
When Paddy Wallace was pinged for not rolling away in the tackle, Armitage stepped up to land a penalty kick from the ten-metre line and reduce the arrears to 11-6.
Ireland looked to their bench then, with Peter Stringer, Denis Leamy and Rory Best entering the fray and the new players helped get the hosts back within scoring range.
Ten minutes from time, replacement scrum half Care led with the shoulder as he charged into the back of Marcus Horan at an Irish ruck and got a yellow for his careless play.
Johnson could not contain his fury in the stands and the evening darkened for the English manager when normal service resumed for O’Gara and he scored from the resulting penalty.
England responded well though with Goode releasing Tindall through the middle and the 2003 World Cup winner barrelled his way forward, bringing play up to the Irish 22.
A quick recycle had Ireland still out of shape and Goode’s grubber kick out to the right was pounced on by Armitage for a well-worked try. Goode added the conversion to squeeze some more life into the game at 14-13.
However, time ran out on the visitors and a relieved Ireland, who had done enough to warrant a more comfortable-looking final scoreline, raised their arms aloft as their winning march moves on to Murrayfield in two weeks’ time.
TIME LINE: 13 minutes – Ireland penalty: missed by Ronan O’Gara – 0-0; 22 mins – Ireland penalty: missed by Ronan O’Gara – 0-0; 29 mins – Ireland penalty: Ronan O’Gara – 3-0; 39 mins – England penalty: Toby Flood – 3-3; Half-time – Ireland 3 England 3; 42 mins – Ireland penalty: missed by Ronan O’Gara – 3-3; 45 mins – Ireland drop goal: Brian O’Driscoll – 6-3; 55 mins – England sin-binning: Phil Vickery (killing the ball); 57 mins – Ireland try: Brian O’Driscoll – 11-3; conversion: missed by Ronan O’Gara – 11-3; 66 mins – England penalty: Delon Armitage – 11-6; 70 mins – England sin-binning: Danny Care (off-the-ball offence); 71 mins – Ireland penalty: Ronan O’Gara – 14-6; 79 mins – England try: Delon Armitage – 14-11; conversion: Andy Goode – 14-13; Full-time – Ireland 14 England 13
IRELAND: Robert Kearney; Tommy Bowe, Brian O’Driscoll (capt), Paddy Wallace, Luke Fitzgerald; Ronan O’Gara, Tomas O’Leary; Marcus Horan, Jerry Flannery, John Hayes, Donncha O’Callaghan, Paul O’Connell, Stephen Ferris, David Wallace, Jamie Heaslip.
Replacements used: Peter Stringer for O’Leary (66 mins), Denis Leamy for Heaslip, Rory Best for Flannery (both 69). Not used: Tom Court, Mick O’Driscoll, Gordon D’Arcy, Geordan Murphy.
ENGLAND: Delon Armitage; Paul Sackey, Mike Tindall, Riki Flutey, Mark Cueto; Toby Flood, Harry Ellis; Andrew Sheridan, Lee Mears, Phil Vickery, Steve Borthwick (capt), Nick Kennedy, James Haskell, Joe Worsley, Nick Easter.
Replacements used: Julian White for Haskell (56-66 mins, temporary sub), Danny Care for Ellis, Mathew Tait for Sackey (both 57), Dylan Hartley for Mears, Andy Goode for Flood (both 66), Tom Croft for Kennedy (69), White for Aheridan, Luke Narraway for Easter (both 76).
Referee: Craig Joubert (South Africa)