Right, let’s start with a quick game of Name the Speaker.
“Ominous signs...” Someone in a red shirt on seeing Friday night’s exit poll? Someone in a blue shirt on seeing Saturday morning’s exit poll?
Actually it was Ryle Nugent after half an hour at Twickenham on Saturday evening.
England 3 Ireland 3. Fair enough on the face of it — after all, the only poll that matters is the one on election day — but the scoreline is concealing a multitude of concerns. There are problems on the ground, which is bad enough. There are problems in the air, usually such a safe constituency for the green shirts, with Anthony Watson doing his best Shane-Horgan-at-Croke-Park impression and repeatedly soaring above the Irish rearguard to pluck the egg from the skies.
Billy Vunipola, doing his best Jonah-Lomu-anytime-anywhere impression, is charging at the Irish rearguard and forcing two tacklers to stop him every time.
“A one-man wrecking ball,” Donal Lenihan swoons. But all the energy that’s being expended “is gonna take its toll”, Donal adds.
“How long can they keep it up?”
At half-time, with Ireland somehow only trailing 6-3, the panel agree with him.
The visitors have made more than twice as many tackles as the hosts, a statistic with obvious implications for when proceedings enter the final few counts.
“It’s life-support stuff at the moment,” Daire O’Brien grimaces.
Brent Pope tries to accentuate the positive by pointing out Ireland aren’t in a bad place psychologically speaking. “They’ll be saying, ‘We’ve got this far...’”
The ghost of England v Wales at the World Cup is raised, a match in which England did nearly all of the pressing only to be mugged late on.
The possibility exists of a repeat, the panel muse.
The teams trot back out for the second half. Ryle, our tallyman for the evening, counts the Irish legs. There are 30 of them present and correct, he confirms lest viewers may have been under the impression that Joe Schmidt, so beset by injuries as he is, might be reduced to bringing on Long John Silver.
Still, he too wonders, how long will they last?
Oddly, England don’t resume where they left off. Neither do Ireland. They restart on the front foot and after five minutes they’re on an even fronter foot when James Haskell, late and high on Conor Murray, is sinbinned and Murray extracts due revenge moments later by burrowing over for a try.
“Funny ole game, Saint,” Ryle doesn’t say but probably should. Beside him, Donal is busy wondering what’s become of Vunipola, who hasn’t been sighted since the break. Ominous signs? What ominous signs?
A game of four quarters, though. Haskell returns from doing his time and Watson gets in to put England 14-10 ahead.
Soon Mike Brown helps make it 21-10 — “a huge lead in the context of the effort Ireland have put in,” Ryle observes sadly and correctly. That’s a hell of a quota to have to exceed with time running out.
The endgame is absorbing. Just when you feared that Ireland might be eliminated they stage a stirring rally. Robbie Henshaw is almost in but has a foot in touch. Danny Care doesn’t live up to his name and England are down to 14 again. Josh Van der Flier very nearly lives up to his only to be thwarted on the line. One try might pave the way for a second, but the first try never arrives and eventually Romain Poite, the returning officer, calls a halt.
It looks like a comfortable win for England. It is anything but. Unfortunately there will not be a recount. “A brilliant contest,” Daire enthuses before lamenting that the table doesn’t give points for bravery and sweat.
“A great game of rugby,” Conor O’Shea agrees, “but Joe Schmidt will not be looking for plucky.”
A commendable campaign and the candidate lost neither his honour nor his deposit. But sometimes bravery isn’t enough. The signs were right all along. This concludes the count in the Kingston upon Thames constituency.
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