England beat Ireland to take control of Six Nations
Published 27/02/2016 | 21:46
England began healing the Twickenham wounds of last autumn's World Cup disaster by landing their first major blow in the RBS 6 Nations title race with an emphatic 21-10 victory over Ireland.
On their first home match since a record defeat by Australia sent them spinning out of the global showpiece they hosted, tries from Anthony Watson and Mike Brown helped inflict a second defeat of the tournament on the reigning champions.
Injury-hit Ireland provided the step-up in competition predicted by captain Dylan Hartley and after victories over Scotland and Italy this was the most satisfying result and performance of Eddie Jones' brief tenure.
The infuriating number of errors and penalties conceded remain an ongoing concern for Jones, but this was otherwise an encouraging afternoon for the only team still capable of winning the Grand Slam and a likely title decider awaits against Wales in a fortnight.
Number eight Billy Vunipola was outstanding once again and finished the match as captain after Dylan Hartley and Owen Farrell had been replaced, while Maro Itoje produced a forceful full debut.
England led only 6-3 at half-time - a poor return given their dominance - but were impressive in the second quarter before successfully holding out against a resurgent Ireland on an afternoon that only really came alive after the interval.
The midfield mismatch never quite materialised and Jones' controversial decision to highlight the health of Johnny Sexton after the fly-half had suffered a whiplash injury against France did not backfire.
In one passage of play Sexton was flattened by Ben Youngs and a couple of phases later inexplicably dropped the ball, allowing England to counter and score Watson's crucial try.
Only Sexton - who otherwise enjoyed a strong afternoon - will know if he had been rattled, but he was clearly targeted by Youngs, who timed his tackle to perfection.
From the start England were standing flatter and putting greater pace on the ball and were clearly benefiting from the readjustment of their attack.
Indiscipline was costing precious field position, however, with Farrell needlessly infringing for a second time when he strayed offside and the Saracens centre's afternoon deteriorated further when he missed a penalty from in front of the posts.
Vunipola was becoming increasingly influential, using his power to break the gainline as England pounded away deep in opposition territory.
Hartley saw a try discounted because of a double movement, but Ireland were finding it impossible to escape their own 22 as they faced an onslaught of white shirts, while their kickers failed to provide an exit strategy.
Clever play from Youngs at scrum-half kept the Irish on their toes, but once again an error took the wind out of English sails.
Hartley was heard on the ref link urging his team-mates to "step it up for the second quarter" and while the period was dominated by the home side, they had managed to build only a slender 6-3 lead through two penalties from Farrell
Ireland finished the half with a flourish, centre Stuart McCloskey bursting into space before Jamie Heaslip kicked the ball away down the right.
A line-out steal by Itoje ensured an Irish penalty was wasted as Sexton could have kicked for goal and they persevered with the same ambitious tactic when James Haskell had been sent to the sin-bin for a dangerous tackle on Conor Murray.
This time their endeavour paid off, however, as they won the set-piece and inched forward until Murray was able to collect and touch down. Once Sexton had converted, Ireland led 10-6, but a Farrell penalty kept the rivals neck and neck.
Vunipola swept England out of danger with a scrum pick up before Youngs flattened Sexton and when the fly-half dropped the ball, the home side seized the moment to score their first try.
Brown and Vunipola were involved in the build-up and once Youngs had almost slipped through, a long pass from Chris Robshaw sent Watson over in the corner.
Five minutes later England crossed for a second time, benefiting from the hands of twin playmakers George Ford and Farrell whose rapid passing allowed Brown to stroll across the whitewash.
Nowell executed a try-saving tackle on Robbie Henshaw before Danny Care was sent to the sin-bin for a technical infringement and despite Ireland's late surge, the Red Rose try-line remained intact.