Saturday 22 July 2017

Kidney gets express train back on the right track

Hugh Farrelly

YOU would think after six wins from seven meetings, the satisfaction derived from an Irish rugby victory over England would have diminished somewhat. Not so.

This was sweet; a win that gets the Kidney Express chugging along towards New Zealand 2011 again after the train wreck that was Paris.

The English were visibly crushed afterwards, none more so than manager Martin Johnson, who knows the already heavy criticism will ratchet up a few notches ahead of their next meeting with Scotland and that he will come under severe pressure to reassess the positions of his appointed totems, Steve Borthwick and Jonny Wilkinson.

Johnson's frustration was compounded by the fact that his side dominated possession and territory and surrendered a winning position after Wilkinson's perfectly executed drop-goal pushed them 16-13 ahead with less than 10 minutes left.

The English were also querying referee Mark Lawrence's decision to reverse a penalty against Tomas O'Leary, which set up the chain of events leading to Keith Earls' try, and the dramatic call at the death when the South African awarded Ireland the scrum after a punishing England maul which Johnson believed the Irish were trying to pull down. Semantics. Ireland won because their defensive system re-established the authority it lost in Paris, because they took their chances clinically and because England, for all their huffing and puffing in attack, had the bite of soggy toast.

That is not Ireland's problem. Kidney and his management team can reflect on a job well done and, despite the injury disruption going into this game, there was further evidence of the stated policy of squad development bearing fruit.

Being able to bring on Leo Cullen, Ronan O'Gara and Shane Jennings with 10 minutes to go was a huge boost.

Ireland had lost captain Brian O'Driscoll -- whose head came out the worst of a horrible accidental collision with Paul O'Connell's knee -- and on came the three wise men, all with the experience (and form) to provide exactly what was required.

When Wilkinson did his thing and Twickenham swung low to roar their men home, Cullen, O'Gara and Jennings were central to Ireland's response. O'Gara arrowed a kick to the corner with typical aplomb, Cullen then put the wobbly English line-out under pressure which allowed Jennings to hare down on Wilkinson and prevent the England out-half from clearing further than the England 22.

From the Irish throw, O'Connell fired the ball down to O'Leary who made good ground before feeding Tommy Bowe.

The Ospreys man is arguably the world's form winger and he scorched past a despairing Wilkinson before hopping through James Haskell's lunge for the touchdown under the posts.

It was Bowe's second try of the day following his effort after three minutes when he profited from a sublime double dummy and kick through from Jonathan Sexton.

The out-half debate will be resurrected in the build-up to the Wales match but, the dual-pivot plan is progressing nicely and Saturday evoked memories of O'Gara's breakthrough international season 10 years ago.

Back then, the Munster man was still finding his feet at this level and David Humphreys was brought off the bench to close matches out while O'Gara, whose talents were obvious, gained vital experience.

Similarly, this match will stand to Sexton; there were four missed kicks, worth 10 points, but none of them straightforward and, as well as Bowe's opening effort, the out-half was also instrumental in Earls' try with a superb pass out to his left winger.

Having O'Gara on the bench was a comforting position for Kidney to be in, just as having Sexton would be if he reverts back. Either way, it is a healthy situation at outside half.

However, this was not a performance without its flaws and for much of the second half it looked as though the Grand Slam champions were determined to throw victory away through persistent errors and a penalty count that finished well into the teens.

It was a special day for John Hayes, who led out the team to mark his 100th international. However, Tim Payne was in no mood to celebrate with him and gave the Cappamore man a tough day in the scrum.

Hayes was earning the unwelcome attention and whistling of Lawrence and was replaced by Tony Buckley before a yellow card could be flourished.

England knew Buckley's scrummaging was under scrutiny after the Saxons had him in considerable difficulty a few weeks beforehand, but the giant Shannon man knuckled down to his task with commendable application and put his strength to good use when England attempted their end-game rumble.

Donncha O'Callaghan gave his all after a month on the sidelines and more than justified his inclusion and every member of the front five got through a punishing work load successfully.

The Irish had only a handful of throws but attacked England's line-out with considerable success and, while the scrum was put under quite a lot of pressure, it was never to a debilitating degree.

O'Connell had his issues holding onto the ball in contact but came to the fore in the last quarter, claiming a brilliant restart after Bowe's try and directing his forward troops in their end-game, under-siege duties.

But it was in the back-row where Ireland's supremacy was most pronounced. James Haskell and Nick Easter are more shapers than shifters with Stephen Ferris and Jamie Heaslip showing their Lions class by comparison.

After a difficult day in Paris, David Wallace reasserted himself in a big way before Kidney called on the fresh legs of Jennings.

Bowe and Earls (who put in some punishing tackles despite going into the match with a stomach bug) looked a class above on the wings while the back-line in general carried far more potency that England's, whose 'moves' tended to revolve around bread-and-butter, along-the-line shovels.

Gordon D'Arcy and O'Driscoll were never seriously troubled by their opposite numbers, with Riki Flutey very quiet throughout, and D'Arcy stepping well on his carries. Ireland went in 8-6 ahead after a dour first half and, when Earls crossed for 13-6 after 56 minutes, it was set up for Ireland to kick on.

But the penalties and errors continued to mount and gave heart to the English, who responded after 62 minutes. It was no surprise that their try was an unimaginative effort from their forwards, Dan Cole getting the credit via the TMO and Wilkinson's convert tie-ing it up at 13-13.

Ireland's ability to deal with the momentum England generated from Wilkinson's drop-goal lead was extremely impressive and testament to the experience in their ranks and the winning mentality that comes from 12 victories in 14 outings.

The pre-match consensus in England was that Ireland are a team in decline, but this victory suggests the opposite -- particularly when you consider that Luke Fiztgerald. Rob Kearney, Denis Leamy, Sean O'Brien and Donnacha Ryan will come back into the equation in time for the vital southern hemisphere tour.

In the meantime, Ireland can approach the remaining ties against Wales and Scotland in Croke Park with Paris out of their system and the confidence that stems from clearing another significant psychological hurdle on the path to the World Cup.

Back on track.

ENGLAND -- D Armitage (B Foden 49); M Cueto, M Tait, R Flutey, U Monye; J Wilkinson, D Care (P Hodgson 73); T Payne, D Hartley (L Mears 66), D Cole (D Wilson 73); S Shaw (L Deacon 5), S Borthwick (Capt); J Haskell, L Moody (J Worsley 55), N Easter.

IRELAND -- G Murphy; T Bowe, B O'Driscoll (Capt, A Trimble 64), G D'Arcy, K Earls; J Sexton (R O'Gara 69), T O'Leary; C Healy, R Best, J Hayes (T Buckley 62), D O'Callaghan (L Cullen 69), P O'Connell, S Ferris, D Wallace (S Jennings 70), J Heaslip.

REF -- M Lawrence (South Africa).

Irish Independent

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