Saturday 10 December 2016

Alarm bells ringing but no need to panic

England 21 Ireland 13

Published 07/09/2015 | 02:30

England’s Anthony Watson climbs above Simon Zebo to collect a cross field ball on his way to scoring his side’s second try at Twickenham
England’s Anthony Watson climbs above Simon Zebo to collect a cross field ball on his way to scoring his side’s second try at Twickenham
Dave Kearney is one of the few making an impression
A frustrated Conor Murray sitting on the bench after being taken off following a blow to the head

After seeing Ireland down the tunnel, England embarked on a lap of honour around Twickenham to applaud their fans and soak up the feel-good factor they had generated ahead of their home World Cup.

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The visiting team didn't linger and beat a hasty retreat to the dressing-room. They couldn't get out of Dodge quickly enough.

The enduring emotion afterwards was that this could have been a whole lot worse for the Six Nations champions, and watching Wales lose two key players in their win over Italy only re-emphasised the point.

The shadow of 2007 lingers over this tournament and Ireland's first-half performance set the alarm-bells ringing.

Yet, with their set-piece strong again, they fought back to within two points of an on-fire England side and looked well positioned to push for the win until a series of backline injuries made for a makeshift team in the end and the momentum was lost.

Learning

Joe Schmidt is learning through this process and the most important thing he must gauge is form.

Whereas Dave Kearney is ripping it up, Tommy Bowe looks a pale shadow of his former self. Devin Toner may be a stalwart of the era, but he couldn't respond to Iain Henderson's bravura display last weekend.

Important players are still playing their way in, while there is an over-riding sense that Ireland are holding something back.

At times, England looked like they might blow their visitors off the park and the first half was full of concern, but context is Ireland's friend in the process and after four games and just one significant injury, Schmidt appeared quietly satisfied with where his side stand ahead of the big kick-off on Saturday week.

"With four matches played, we've mixed the team up every time," he said, after lamenting the loss of Tommy O'Donnell. "The guys that didn't play last week, the likes of Rory Best, Mike Ross, Devin Toner, Sean O'Brien didn't start, that's four changes to the pack so you're not going to get the continuity.

"It was great to have Jared (Payne) back in there and I felt he was outstanding, he did an incredible job defensively.

"We had a couple of changes in the back three as well with Tommy coming back and Simon (Zebo) starting at full-back.

"So in the context of how much change and shifting and building of match-minutes has been done, I'd be satisfied from that perspective.

"I don't think anyone's satisfied that we lost because we're too competitive to be satisfied with that, and hopefully that spurs us into the World Cup.

"If you cruise into the World Cup on the back of three or four wins and feeling that the world is rosy, there's a danger in that as well.

"I don't think there's too much risk of us feeling the world is too rosy, we know we've got to roll our sleeves up and keep working really hard."

The Ireland coach may have bumped into his English counterpart Stuart Lancaster at The Stoop yesterday as they both took in Canada's warm-up clash with Fiji.

The contrast between the two sides' schedules has to be taken into account when reviewing their displays at Twickenham, with England facing Fiji, Wales and Australia in their next three games, while Ireland take on Canada, Romania and Italy.

So it was that the World Cup hosts desperately wanted to hit the ground running and they began with a bang, Jonny May bulldozing through a terrible Bowe tackle to score.

Johnny Sexton pulled a penalty back, but Ireland were being run ragged and a superb Anthony Watson take over Zebo's head from George Ford's cross-kick extended the home side's lead.

The television match official spared Ireland's blushes as May thought he had scorched over again by spotting a forward pass from Tom Youngs, but Ireland's rate of missed tackles and inability to get their hands on the ball cost them.

After 25 minutes, they began to grow into the game but coughed up a lineout on England's five-metre line, while Robbie Henshaw got his hands in a muddle when a crisp pass might have sent Kearney over.

Ford extended England's lead after the interval, but Ireland's best spell came around the 50 minute mark, with the use of the screen attack notable for its effectiveness.

Clever

Sexton kicked a penalty, before an excellent Jamie Heaslip turnover and clever Henshaw chip forced England into a corner and an excellent lineout maul peel and Rory Best clearout set Paul O'Connell up to power over.

Sexton converted and suddenly it was a two-point game, but England were able to bring more off the bench and Ireland lost momentum as they were forced into a number of re-jigs and finished with three tighthead props on the pitch.

Owen Farrell closed it out for his side as Ireland survived another TMO scare when Richard Wigglesworth went over from close range, but in the end they were able to escape with some relief.

They know that performance won't be good enough when the big hitters get going, but there is comfort in the fact that they have time to address their issues.

England - M Brown; A Watson, J Joseph, B Barritt (S Burgess 61), J May; G Ford (O Farrell 61), B Youngs (R Wigglesworth 61); J Marler (M Vunipola 58), T Youngs (J George 61), D Cole (K Brookes 63), G Parling (J Launchbury 45), C Lawes, T Wood, C Robshaw (capt), B Morgan (B Vunipola 58).

Ireland - S Zebo (T Furlong 68); T Bowe, J Payne, R Henshaw (I Madigan 61), D Kearney; J Sexton (D Cave 65), C Murray (E Reddan 18); J McGrath, R Best (R Strauss 62), M Ross (N White 61-74), D Toner, P O'Connell (65), P O'Mahony, S O'Brien (C Henry 62), J Heaslip.

Ref - N Owens (Wales)

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