By Kieran Rooney
[caption id="attachment_63742" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Ireland's David Wallace is tackled by Chris Ashton and Toby Flood of England at the Aviva Stadium. INPHO/JAMES CROMBIE"][/caption]
TALKING about answering you critics in style! Ireland's performance in beating England 24-8 in their final Six Nations encounter last Saturday made a nonsense of much of the lead-up to the Aviva Stadium encounter.
Not only did it deprive the Six Nations winners England of the Grand Slam but it also proved what a good side Ireland can be. Even the sometimes belligerent England boss Martin Johnson had to admit that his team was outplayed.
Without question, Declan Kidney and his Irish management team were open to criticism going into their final match. But some of it was absolutely ludicrous.
There was talk of Ireland being in disarray after winning two and losing two of their previous four games. Remember, they only lost out narrowly to France after outscoring them by three tries to one, and the key to the defeat to Wales was a truly awful decision by the match officials.
As a consequence, they were under huge pressure to deliver against England. The criticism came from all sides as they changed the back division, recalling Jonathan Sexton to out-half, switching Keith Earls full-back and bringing Andrew Trimble on to the wing.
But all three delivered with Sexton being named man of the match. Ronan O'Gara, to give him his due, came on as a substitute for Sexton in the final 10 minutes to play his part.
The Sexton-O'Gara debate is going to rage on until the World Cup. After Saturday, the general consensus seems to be that we are lucky to have both.
True. But my view has always been that Kidney and his match officials should have held their nerve and started with the more attacking minded Sexton throughout the campaign.
That's taking nothing away from O'Gara. He delivered a man of the match performance in the victory over Scotland and, even at 34, there are few, if any, better tactical kickers in the game.
He also, most importantly, has massive self belief. The big question on Saturday was Sexton going to be lacking in that quality after some of the criticism he had received going into the encounter.
Not a lot had gone his way. After coming on as a substitute against Wales, he had missed a sitter of a goalkick and then saw Wales score an illegal match-deciding try after a mishit touch kick.
Okay, he had recovered to very nearly set up an Irish try, but the pressure was on him big time against England. If anything had gone at all wrong, there were going to be calls to bring on O'Gara sooner rather than later.
Fortunately, nothing did go wrong. Sexton was superb from start to finish, landing four penalties and a conversion, and also using some quick thinking to set up a try for Tommy Bowe.
You see, Sexton does share one very important ingrediant with O'Gara in that he also has enormous self belief. If he was lacking at all in that area, he could have been in real trouble on Saturday.
But even more important is the fact that he is a really talented player. His performances have been absolutely crucial in helping Leinster through to the quarter-finals of the Heineken (European) Cup.
He is also a different type of player to O'Gara, despite views to the contrary. He's 25, hopefully approaching the best days of his career, and should be backed.
Aside from Sexton, just about every member of the Irish starting line-up and substitutes delivered on Saturday. Brian O'Driscoll, for example, could just as easily have received the man of the match award as his Leinster colleague.
He's every bit as influential than he ever was. He combined a wonderfully taken try with some outstanding defensive work.
Importantly, the Irish team never bought into the hype surrounding the England side. Although they have ended as Six Nations Champions, this is not a great English outfit.
Ireland proved as much on Saturday. The scoreline, in truth, should have been more emphatic. Ireland were denied what looked to be a perfectly good first half try when the touch judge ruled Bowe's pass to O'Driscoll as being forward, and England's try came from an intercept.
Their manager Johnson called it as it was, stating: "We have no complaints, we got what we deserved. If you are in a fight you want to feel that you landed a few, and we didn't feel that we landed any."
Absolutely right. If England expected to batter Ireland up the middle of the park through the 6-foot-7 center Matt Banahan, alongside the 225-pound Shontayne Hape, they could not have been more wrong.
Ireland were outstanding defensively. Gordon D'Arcy, alongside O'Driscoll, had his best game for some time, while Sexton, Bowe, Trimble and Earls also did sterling work.
The gamble of switching the talented Earls to full-back was seen to be a success. And, although his pass was intercepted by Steve Thompson for England's consolation try, Eoin Reddan, had a fine game at scrum -half.
But, of course, first of all the Irish pack had to produce. They did that from the opening scrum when they got the shove on to make what proved to be a huge statement.
Next, Sexton made a further statement by landing his first penalty. Ireland quickly had the capacity crowd right behind them and they responded by establishing a 17-3 interval lead.
Bowe got the try after some good work by Sexton, while the out-half landed three penalties. England's only response was a penalty from their No 10 Toby Flood.
If England had any thoughts of a comeback, they were quickly diminished in the second half. Within seven minutes a marvelous pick up from O'Driscoll saw him go over for a record breaking 25th championship try which Sexton converted from the touchline.
At 24-3, the match was sewn up, but the Irish forwards needed to keep up the good work. Donnacha O'Callaghan answered his critics with a heroic effort, forming an impressive second-row partnership with Paul O'Connell, but then everyone did their bit in a magnificent performance from the Irish pack.
Last autumn, you might have wondered if the years were finally getting to the 34-year-old David Wallace. But on Saturday he showed that he still more than able to contribute, alongside Sean O'Brien and Jamie Heaslip in the Irish back-row.
It is the emergence of some of the new players to come in, such as O'Brien and prop Mike Ross, that makes Declan Kidney believe that Ireland are in a decent position approaching the World Cup.
He explained: "We now have a broader base than we had when we won the Grand Slam two years ago. Not everything has gone our way in the Six Nations but it was enormously encouraging to finish with this performance."