By Shane Thomas
Let's not mince words. England weren't beaten by Ireland at Landsdowne Road last Saturday (I'm going to try to avoid referring to it as the AVIVA Stadium), they took a beating. This is a relatively young England side who have achieved success in quite a short time. Ireland on the other hand, are a team of slightly grizzled, gnarled players, who have begun to look over the hill since winning the Grand Slam back in 2009.
And England knew this. England went to Dublin with a cocksure assurance. They were like a teenager who's just turned 18, goes to the pub for the first time (legally at least) ready to show the world what they're all about, sneering at all the older guys whose best years are past them, saying "Look at them. That won't happen to me."
England went into the pub happy to give it the big'un, but they realised too late that this was one of those backstreet pubs where the regulars are all spoiling for a fight. From the first whistle, Ireland turned the game into a barroom brawl, and tore into England with a demented fury. In the face of a mammoth performance from David Wallace and a rejuvenated Paul O'Connell, England were left dazed by the pounding they took in the forwards. On the rare occasions that England's back line got their hands on the ball, they had next to no time or space to do anything with it.
By the time the 80 minutes were up, England staggered off the pitch, with a proverbial black eye, cut lip, and with a few less teeth - the way Ireland played, that might not even be metaphorical.
The key from here is how England react. They may have been schooled by Ireland but they still took the 6 Nations Championship, and with the World Cup drawing ever closer, there is no need for the team to be despondent.
What is now clear in the development of this team is that England have the foundations of a genuine world class side, and are Europe's best chance of preventing world domination by the Southern Hemisphere titans of New Zealand, South Africa & Australia. Up front, James Haskell looks to be finally delivering on his undoubted potential, while Tom Wood has been a revelation at Number 7. Dylan Hartley looks have made the hooker position his own and Courtney Lawes is a monster in the second row.
While in the back division, Ben Youngs & Toby Flood look to have struck a strong understanding at half-back, Ben Foden is a class act at full-back, while of course the star of the show is Chris Ashton on the wing.
However, the relative inexperience of this group of players has led to inconsistency in performance, and England have at times looked a little callow under the duress of a strong forward line. In the past six months both South Africa and Ireland's packs have choked England into submission, which in turn closes down the space for Youngs & Flood to hurt the opposition. The knock-on effect means that Ashton, Foden & Mark Cueto are starved of service.
To progress from a good side to a very good - or even a great - one, these players are going to have to find more than one way to beat a team. Also, they could do with growing up a little. While we all love to see the ball moving through the backs quickly and expansively, rugby union is a sport where you have to earn the right to play. If you're not willing to get your hands dirty, then you won't be getting your hands on much else, be it the ball, the opposition, or the World Cup.
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