Saturday 21 October 2017

Bernard Jackman: Ireland prove they're horrible to play against

Donnacha Ryan of Ireland passes the ball to scrum-half Kieran Marmion
Donnacha Ryan of Ireland passes the ball to scrum-half Kieran Marmion
Joe Schmidt. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

Bernard Jackman

France winning a crazy match in Paris meant that Ireland knew they would go into the upcoming Rugby World Cup draw as fourth seed, regardless of the result against England.

But this Irish team and the home crowd were not lacking motivation or drive. They wanted to finish what has been a frustrating Six Nations with a big performance and a special result and they did just that in pretty spectacular fashion.

During the build-up to yesterday's game Eddie Jones described England's training session last Thursday as indifferent. It was a comment that I didn't think too much about at the time but it came back to me during the first-half of yesterday's game as his side looked pretty indifferent to what was at stake.

They didn't seem ready for the intensity that Ireland brought and their players seemed to have an eye on the man rather than the ball at key moments.

In the first forty they looked like a team that had been celebrating back-to-back Six Nations and it was almost like they forgot there was a Grand Slam to play for.

Ireland had 75 per cent territory and possession in the first half. But the 10-3 lead looked a little shy given how England have finished games recently, with over 60 per cent of their scores coming in the second half. And also considering how inexperienced our bench was with the injuries we suffered during the week.

Both teams showed serious intent without the ball, getting off the line aggressively, feeling safe that the likelihood of the attack going wide or playing that extra pass was seriously diminished by the rain that fell earlier yesterday.

Ireland have lost tight matches in this tournament mainly down to our inability to score from penalties kicked to the corner. When Rory Best and Jonathan Sexton turned down the three points in the 23rd minute they didn't fluff their lines. And after Peter O'Mahony caught the ball at the lineout the Irish pack engineered a dynamic maul which launched Iain Henderson over for the try.

The mind games had started during the week when Jones said they were ready for Ireland's 'kick and clap' game plan. But at the end of the first half England had actually kicked the ball twice more than Ireland with the Irish showing a real willingness to keep the ball in hand.

And more importantly keep the ball in hand with more width than we have seen recently. They were more creative and dynamic, it was almost like they had listened to the criticism directed at them all week.

When Joe Schmidt announced his team for the game there was plenty of lamenting over the loss of Conor Murray and with good reason; he has been one of the players in this tournament who has consistently done his job and a whole lot more.

His replacement, Kieran Marmion, is a different type of scrum-half to Murray and as it turned out his inclusion worked in Ireland's favour. They played to his strengths, which is how he plays for Connacht, full of high tempo and energy.

Ireland proved that when they have the right mind-set they are a horrible team to play against. They fight for every inch of ground and have the tactics and technique to strangle any opposition.

The choke tackle gave us possession at important times but also gave our players and the crowd vital energy boosts during the match. And in turn the singing and chanting in the Aviva spurred on the team. When Sexton manhandled England back row James Haskell and forced a scrum for us you could see the belief grow. It was timely and they built on that.

As the game edged on Eddie Jones was able to throw what he calls his finishers into the fray in the form of Jamie George, Mako Vunipola, Nathan Hughes and Ben Te'o. This meant that they had big strong powerful men running at tiring Irish defenders. Their scrum and lineout maul started to win penalties but a brilliant steal by O'Mahony in the 73rd minute released pressure and also showed his value to this team as a back row lineout option.

JOY: Jonathan Sexton and Simon Zebo celebrate after the RBS Six Nations Rugby match between Ireland and England. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
JOY: Jonathan Sexton and Simon Zebo celebrate after the RBS Six Nations Rugby match between Ireland and England. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

When Andrew Conway came on at half-time it meant that either Sexton or Payne had to play 80 minutes and given the hits that the Leinster man was taking and giving that was no easy feat.

Luke McGrath's tactical kick in the 77th minute to pin the English on their own line was the perfect tactical decision, executed with precision.

Conway was also the 20th player that Joe Schmidt has capped since the World Cup, whereas Wales have only capped three in the same period. It's a telling statistic.

Ireland were able to stop a team winning their 19th match in a row with players that are new to international rugby.

I think this was an outstanding performance and it means that since the tour to South Africa last June there has been enough high points to really believe that this side is on an upward curve. Ireland deserve their place in the top four of world rugby.

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