England bear scars as Slam hopes go down the pan
The distinctive shape of Ireland's shiny new Aviva Stadium has caused some locals to liken it to a bed-pan. England's Grand Slam hopes certainly disappeared down it at an alarming rate of knots.
Some of Martin Johnson's side managed to raise a smile as they were presented with England's first Six Nations trophy since 2003 in their hotel on Saturday evening, after Wales' defeat in Paris.
Once the dust has settled, that might be seen as adequate reward for their improvement over the last 12 months.
But as Shontayne Hape pointed out beforehand, Grand Slam deciders can be 'once in a lifetime' moments, and in this particular contest, England - in Johnson's words - "didn't land a shot".
Quite simply, they were nowhere near good enough. No area of their game stood up to scrutiny under the ferocious pressure applied by an Irish side desperate to show that they remain a force to be reckoned with.
The hosts may reflect that they too could have been in the title mix on this final day of Six Nations hostilities, rather than just revelling in the role of party poopers. A fumbled chance when they looked like scoring late on against France before losing 25-22, a poor decision by the touch judge which proved pivotal in Cardiff a week ago...such are the margins in a tournament where the teams are so closely matched.
As the peerless Brian O'Driscoll, Ireland's victorious captain, put it: "That is why it is so hard to win a Slam. Four big performances in a row are not enough, particularly when you see what Italy are doing now as well. It is such a brilliant championship and it is a very, very good side that wins a Grand Slam."
England, not that it was very evident in this performance, are a good side, with the potential to be very good. But their inexperience of these occasions was ruthlessly exposed.
Ten of the visitors' starting XV here were 25 or under, and - deprived of injured captain Mike Tindall - they took the field with only 314 caps between them. Only four players - Mark Cueto, Toby Flood, James Haskell and Nick Easter - had 30 caps or more. Ireland's side boasted 622 caps at the outset, more than the last three World Cup-winning teams boasted going into those tournaments.
Not that Johnson was using that as an excuse, and rightly so. His players had shown themselves capable of much better over the past seven weeks.
England's troubles started as early as the second minute when Ireland pushed them back at the first scrum and won a penalty. They continued all the way through a "horrible" opening 40 minutes, and well into the second half.
If they were unfortunate to lose lock Tom Palmer - their main line-out target - to injury after 26 minutes, and scrum-half Ben Youngs could be considered unlucky to be sin-binned for throwing the ball away when there was little prospect of a quick Irish throw-in, it was hard to feel sympathy when the visitors invited so much misery on themselves.
In the opening 15 minutes, Ben Foden sliced a clearing kick, Toby Flood's kick-off didn't go 10m, Palmer dived in the side of a ruck. England won a scrum that was already on the move but in trying to keep the ball at the base, allowed Ireland to steal it. Chris Ashton was penalised for a high tackle.
And so it went on. Flood's poor pass landed at Hape's feet, Youngs - after breaking from a scrum - delayed his pass and was scragged by the evergreen David Wallace. At 9-0 down, Flood - given the chance to give England a foothold in the game - pulled a straightforward penalty wide.
The official stats showed there were 17 English errors in all, but it felt like more, such was their inability to execute their basic skills against an Irish team who had built up an unstoppable head of steam by the time Tommy Bowe scored their opening try just before the half-hour.
Even the most pessimistic red rose supporter cannot have envisaged that the game would be up after just 47 minutes. But when O'Driscoll showed his enduring predatory instincts to score a record 25th Championship try, there looked to be no way back for England from 24-3 down.
And so it proved, even with the gift of Steve Thompson's startling interception try six minutes later. When Jonny Wilkinson missed the subsequent conversion, Ireland must have known it was going to be their day.
England's players failed to make any real impact on an impressive Ireland side
The World Cup winner did bring a measure of order to the visitors' play for a while, bringing Matt Banahan into the game in attack as England built some phases, only for the umpteenth knock-on to end the move.
As the rain started to lash down and England were forced to initiate moves from their own half with a greasy ball, Ireland brought on Ronan O'Gara for man-of-the-match Jonathan Sexton, and the old-stager kept England pinned back with some vintage kicks to the corners.
"The Fields of Athenry" - a welcome change from the infuriating drums the stadium PA belted out insistently while play was going on - rang around the stadium as a buoyant Irish crowd celebrated their first major victory at their new home.
"We wanted to set down a marker that we were back home," said O'Driscoll, who along with Bowe and the excellent Keith Earls, had a ball at England's expense.
So too a dominant Irish back row, with Wallace, Sean O'Brien and Jamie Heaslip in rampant form, thriving on the platform provided by a fired-up front five led by Paul O'Connell.
"He is vital to our side and he said some really important things this week which really hit home," O'Driscoll said of his fellow Lions captain. "He brought real intensity and passion to the pack."
While O'Connell and O'Driscoll are Ireland's totems, England do not yet have on-field leaders of similar stature. Their best players are mostly the younger generation, who have invigorated the team's fortunes but are patently not yet equipped to dig themselves out of the size of hole they found themselves in here.
Nevertheless, Johnson could take heart from the way flanker Tom Wood and prop Alex Corbisiero - the two finds of this campaign - were still hammering away in a losing cause right to the end.
"We have got a group of players who are only going to get better," Johnson said. "It is an exciting group and this doesn't change that.
"Do you have to get your scars and bruises in before you go and win something? You hope not, but maybe you do. This is a scar, and we have to wear it now for a little bit. We can make that a good thing or a bad thing."
As part of an England set-up that blew Slams in 1999, 2000 and 2001 - even if Johnson was absent on the latter two occasions - before finally completing one in 2003, the manager is well placed to ensure this chastening defeat becomes a force for good.
It may even help to manage expectations going into the World Cup later this year.
England were ranked fourth in the world before Saturday, but have now been leapfrogged by Ireland, which is a pretty good reflection of where both teams stand ahead of the global gathering. Reaching the quarter-finals is to be expected, even if both are in challenging groups; a semi-final would be a great achievement, the final fantastic. But when you consider England did that last time with nowhere near the stability and success of this group, there is no point in setting limits.
The omens are generally good for European champions going on to a World Cup. In the six previous editions, the Five/Six Nations champions from that year have reached three finals (France 1987, England 1991, England 2003), winning it once, and two semi-finals (England 1995, France 2007). Only Scotland, the final Five Nations champions in 1999, failed to progress beyond the last eight.
Competition to get into England's final 30-man World Cup squad will be intense, even if 24 or 25 must already be pencilled in. Johnson has only used 27 players in this campaign, and made only two enforced changes to his starting XV all tournament.
When England next convene for a match against the Barbarians at Twickenham on 29 May, ahead of three World Cup warm-up Tests in August, the likes of Courtney Lawes, Lewis Moody, Andrew Sheridan, Delon Armitage, Mike Tindall and Riki Flutey may all be in better shape to bolster the personnel on duty in Dublin.
But that is all for the future. For now, the scar of Dublin festers.