Comment: 'England may win the Grand Slam but they are an ugly representation of this sport'
Published 27/02/2016 | 20:48
Jonathan Sexton didn’t finish the match but even by then Ireland’s goose had been cooked; Ireland’s championship game is in tatters but they showed enough evidence here that they can raise their bruised and battered bodies from the canvas.
Sexton was bravery personified despite a number of late assaults on a day when we discovered that reckless kicks to the head now apparently also represent the acceptable head of international rugby.
Familiar failings hindered Ireland; scrum and lineout deficiencies and a painful inability to finish opportunities once they manage to get into the opposition’s 22.
That Ireland continue to work harder than seemingly any other side in the world for such limited reward may be a credit to their honest endeavour but it does little to help them at the other end of the field.
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They will decry absentees from their side but there was enough promise in the debuts of Stuart McCloskey, Josh van der Flier and Ultan Dillane to give the lie to the tired premise that this country has not enough strength in depth.
It has plenty, if only they are given the opportunity and trust to play. Ireland were afforded a little more trust, by their coach and themselves, as they tried to play more rugby yesterday, despite retaining the comfort of the much-derided kicking game.
But a subconscious inhibition still betrays much of their best efforts and they simply spurn too many opportunities due to inaccuracy and a lack of execution; Italy and Scotland must become a breeding ground to iron out the many wrinkles now invading this side.
England may win the Grand Slam but they are an ugly representation of this sport; their snide off-field comments during the week followed up a series of late hits and recklessness throughout.
They don’t play much rugby either but at least Ireland retain their honour, however humbling that may feel this evening.
There were testy early exchanges, in keeping with the fractious build-up to this game, with CJ Stander and Joe Marler exchanging binding advice at the game’s first scrum, an encouragingly square attempt by Ireland, who started the game on the front foot.
They put the width on the ball and only kicked when advancing; Andrew Trimble forced Mike Brown to knock on from his second gather of a high ball and Romain Poite awarded the first penalty of the afternoon to the Irish scrum, with Ross’ strength allowing Jack McGrath to attack Marler.
Much of the focus this week had been on Sexton but Ross remains an integral part of this unit and he was effectively the source of Ireland’s sixth minute lead.
England were showing expansive designs too and Ireland’s anxiety forced CJ Stander to linger in a ruck; the attack had stemmed from a poor Conor Murray kick; England levelled it up to gain reward for their early endeavour.
They targeted Sexton in the air from a high kick and Anthony Watson beat him easily in the skies but their over-enthusiasm saw them lose possession; giving Ireland their first real attacking opportunity seven metres out.
It was here we saw Ireland’s championship in microcosm; they almost coughed up the set-piece and then did cough up possession; Conor Murray fired a poor pass which went behind Rory Best and England advanced fully 100 yards.
Ireland then produced a wonderful first-phase move, with Sexton finding a huge hole; he had only done so because Robbie Henshaw had obstructed Owen Farrell; the place-kicker nudged his kick wide and Ireland escaped censure.
England were looking for those wide channels that Argentina exposed during the World Cup but some teak-tough tackling kept the home team out; but the worry was that, yet again, Ireland were putting in an awful lot of work.
A premise heightened when another advantageous lineout position resulted in a botched attack. New habits were dying hard. A scrum penalty on England’s first put-in also reminded us of contemporary failings.
England almost scored from the resultant lineout drive; they kicked to the corner and, just as their coach scented blood all week off the field, now his team went for the jugular on it. A series of drives brought them to the line but Stuart McCloskey saved a certain try.
The TMO had been called in; England retreating to the half-way line confidently, some would say arrogantly; Dylan Hartley was called for a double movement but there was a sense that Ireland were hanging on, particularly when Sexton missed his kick to touch.
It was a mixed bag from Sexton, who twice had an opportunity to help his side escape what was increasingly resembling a siege; at one stage, Billy Vunipola had made four times as many metres as the entire Irish pack put together.
Ireland lacked control; they tried to play from their 22 and fumbled a turnover; whether by their own hand or prompted by English goadings, their tactics seemed awfully muddled. At times, it seemed it was all they could do was kick.
And inaccuracy forced them to defend deeper and deeper.
The saving grace resided in the fact that England were witless enough in possession - Luther Watson messed up one good chance - and much of their play was defended with ease, albeit at physical cost, as Ireland were making twice as many tackles as the home side.
Neither side seemed possessed of the gift of creativity or, indeed, accuracy. Ireland, asked to clear again, did so to touch and, with the maul failing, a midfield mess-up renewed the pressure and Farrell was given a chance to atone from the tee, which he did.
At 6-3, Ireland were privately grinning to be only the minimum behind. Ironically, England might get more anxious the longer they maintained such a threadbare lead; especially if Ireland could improve their accuracy on the ball, and not have to do so much enervating work without it.
They started the second act like the first, sloppy in possession but Stuart MCloskey was enjoying a fine debut and his hugely physical interventions gave Ireland a shot at goal; yet, like in Paris, Rory Best declined the points and went to the corner.
When such a decision is made, his next delivery has to be accurate but it wasn’t; England contested all day in the air from either hand or foot deliveries and stole the lineout.
The home side are capable of self-destructing too and their familiar frailties; ill-discipline, returned to haunt them when James Haskell was binned for cuffing Murray around the neck; this time, with a man advantage, Best once more turned down the points on offer.
This time Ireland profited, the maul steaming past the debilitated hosts and Murray, as he did in Ireland’s only previous try in this championship, snaffled close to the line to ruthlessly punish his aggressor and restore his side’s slim advantage.
In a tight game, Sexton’s wide conversion was crucial; his leadership remained unruffled by the opposing coach’s unseemly attempt to undermine Ireland’s medical staff.
And yet just as Ireland seemed set fair, they self-destructed at the lineout, coughing up their third of the day before Devin Toner conceded his second stupid penalty in successive games to allow England regather some of their wilting confidence.
Ireland, belatedly in this championship, had loosened up. England resorted to hitting Sexton late and after Ben Youngs smashed him after the ball was gone, the Irish out-half then fumbled the ball at the next play.
From this position, England would score their opening try through Anthony Watson; albeit not before Sexton was again held down on the floor by Youngs a few phases beforehand.
Suddenly, a momentum shift; minutes later, as England casually drafted another monstrous Vunipola into the fray, Mike Brown scored the try that effectively took this game away from them.
Ireland, despite the less than desirous circumstances, still tried to play; Sexton burst through from a loop and, if he perhaps had Shane Horgan’s reach, Robbie Henshaw might have scored another famous Irish try on this old cabbage patch.
Ultan Dillane came on and fell just short himself after a storming cameo; England defended with 14 men for the endgame and a deflated Ireland left this old ground with that familiar old feeling.
They just not withdraw into familiar old failings for the rest of the campaign.
If this defeat also robs them of their desire to expand their playing horizons and willingness to pursue a change in direction, then that would be an even bigger disappointment.