Ireland face tough task to close gap on full-time pros
Ireland's Grand Slam dream was crushed beneath the wheels of England's professionally powered chariot at Donnybrook on Friday night.
The Irish side had hoped to provide the perfect launchpad for their World Cup ambitions in front of a Presidential audience on St Patrick's Day, but the superior stamina and fitness levels of the reigning world champions proved the difference between two teams fighting for Grand Slam glory.
A final scoreline of 34-7 is reminiscent of the World Cup semi-final defeat to England three years ago but it wasn't a fair reflection of the Irish performance, when the score at half-time was only 5-0 to the visitors.
During the first half, Ireland were pugnacious in the face of the English attack, each wave of white crashing on green rocks, and in the set-piece, the scrum in particular, the Irish front row had much the better of the contest.
The difference in resources between England, who are this season playing as a fully professional outfit for the first time, and Ireland illuminates the story of the second half, which saw the visitors prosper and the hosts toil.
England were powered by a much stronger bench and the fitness which can only be honed through full-time training without the stresses and pressures of working life; the Irish team, who train before and after doing their day's work, do not have such luxury.
"We lost to a very, very good England team and we can't have any complaints," acknowledged Irish head coach Tom Tierney. "We will take this defeat on the chin like we always do, learn from it and go again. We have a hugely important summer ahead of us, the summer of our lives, and we will plan accordingly."
In terms of August's World Cup and a pool that includes France, Australia and Japan, there were positives for Ireland to take out of a championship campaign that brought four victories from five games, especially against the French. However, Tierney and his side are well aware that they will have plenty to work on between now and the tournament if they are to bridge the gulf to the professionals and make history with a World Cup triumph on home soil.
Tierney recognised that England's fitness and stamina allowed them to cope with Ireland's first-half resistance before burning them off after the break.
"The first-half effort took its toll on the players in the second half," he said. "England are a very skilful, very powerful team and we all feel down about losing the Grand Slam. Every England team - men and women - has access to a much deeper playing pool and that shows in their strength in depth.
"Turning professional has made a difference to them as well, you could really see it in the second half with their strength and fitness levels. England are a good bit ahead of us at the moment but we will work hard between now and the World Cup."
Sunday Indo Sport