Slam dream left in tatters
DEFEAT for Ireland at the Aviva Stadium punctured the bubble of Grand Slam fervour that stemmed from the victory over Wales and highlighted the strength of England's emerging team.
Frustratingly, Ireland played whatever football was produced in a disappointing match. England sought to make it a war of attrition as is their wont and they implemented their negative tactics from the start.
The home side dominated territory (57pc) and possession (58pc) but, criminally, could not make it count. Early injuries led to Simon Zebo and Jonathan Sexton leaving the field and this inevitably upset the home side's plans.
That said, the changes could not explain just why Ireland were never able to find an effective counter to a predictable, if efficient, England.
It is only to emphasise the obvious to suggest that England were about as entertaining as a migraine.
They drove at Ireland with all the imagination and flexibility of a JCB and only once threatened the Ireland try-line when another inch of height would have resulted in Manu Tuilagi touching down. It was, for all intents, anti-rugby as England were content to live off their opponents' mistakes.
Unfortunately, Ireland weren't found wanting in this regard and in the opening quarter particularly Ireland's handling was appalling. Mike Ross, Donnacha Ryan and then, in the 20th minute when Ireland were in an attacking position, Gordon D'Arcy all spilled the ball forward out of contact – mistakes that eventually led to England penalties.
The constant rain made handling a bit of a lottery but the rash of Irish errors smacked of carelessness.
That Ireland were also in a bit of a mess out of touch during this period only exacerbated the situation as the only solid attacking platform that was working in their favour was the maul – twice in those opening 20 minutes they made gains here. But even this good work was negated by poor handling.
Mercifully, the scrum wasn't back-pedalling, as it was 12 months previously, but the resulting gains were minimal.
Fittingly, it was left to Brian O'Driscoll to produce Ireland's first bit of magic with a gorgeous pass to unleash Keith Earls down the left flank after 24 minutes. Earls, in turn, offloaded to Rob Kearney as Ireland made another foray into the England 22.
Alas, Mike McCarthy was the guilty party this time as he knocked on to bring another promising Ireland attack to a premature end,
The conditions of wet ball, driving rain and a slippery pitch did not help the quality of the rugby and seemed to hinder Ireland severely.
It would, however, be remiss not to reflect on the fact that the England players seemed to handle the conditions.
Before the half ended, Conor Murray, from a line-out, and Jamie Heaslip also knocked on. The pressure from England was ferocious, their speed into the tackle was remarkable. Critically, Ireland buckled too many times.
"England took their chances when they came their way. We didn't," said Declan Kidney in the aftermath. "We weren't ever really under pressure of conceding a try but England's pressure game was giving them an advantage."
The disruption England caused meant Ireland could never settle and, as the errors mounted, so did the opportunities for England and Owen Farrell.
"What we've always said is that if we have ourselves right against anybody we'll do okay. It's the damage we did to ourselves that cost us here and we need to work on that," added Kidney.
England, it must be acknowledged, deserved their win.
They were hard-nosed and found the perfect answer to Ireland's ambition. They were also pragmatic in their approach and in how they played the referee in particular.
Their defensive line was up so quickly they had to be courting the offside line and they were streetwise and adept at obstructing Ireland at the line-out and rolling over the top of rucks to slow down the home side's feed.
Three times, for example, referee Jerome Garces had cause to speak to England's captain Chris Robshaw about his players "not rolling away" before eventually sending James Haskell to the sin-bin for an infringement at ruck-time.
England, you suspect, were more than happy to sacrifice numerical parity.
The consequence of their cynical but effective play meant Ireland could never find a rhythm in their attacks and the highly rated Irish three-quarters were unable to influence the game.
But even more impressive was that while Ronan O'Gara did level proceedings with his second penalty as a result of Haskell's binning, England went on to score six points during the time they were down to 14 men.
In those game-defining 10 minutes they were masterful in the way they scavenged to secure possession, working always through their forwards and ensuring their opponents were unable to use their numerical superiority to their advantage.
But while we must compliment Stuart Lancaster's team on their ability to cope so effectively with Haskell's absence, it is also an indictment of Ireland.
Kidney's men were never able to secure a flow of possession and England's defensive work was so adept that possession was turned over repeatedly. When O'Gara failed to convert another penalty in the 70th minute when Ireland trailed 12-6 on a day that was becoming was hugely frustrating for the players, coaches and the full house in attendance.
"We were probably guilty of trying to play too much at times, but I won't criticise the players for that," added Kidney.
"What hurt us were individual errors. We had field position, we kicked well, but we didn't execute. That's something we'll work on."
That Ireland measured up to England in all phases of the game makes this defeat all the more bitter.
This was a game lost by Ireland rather than one won by England, with the critical influence being the speed and effectiveness of England's defence.
They chased down the ball with fervour and Ireland regularly found that possession was a liability.
It cost them precious penalties and with Farrell in immaculate form, Ireland paid a heavy price.
Ireland may have shown more ambition but their attacks always foundered. If they were not checked by the white wall of English resistance, they were forced backwards, with basic errors ultimately leading to costly penalties, a point emphasised by captain Jamie Heaslip.
"Like Declan, I don't want to blame conditions because we both played in them," said Heaslip. "But they didn't help with knock-ons and unforced errors."
In the end, though, Ireland lost because of their inability to live with England's in-your-face game and because they coughed up scoring chances. Conversely, when they had England under pressure, the visitors withstood it.
Ireland's tactical approach must be questioned. As the coach said, they were probably guilty of trying to play too much rugby at times. They seemed to want to run the ball from deep too often, given the challenging conditions.
It was not a good day, then, for Ireland and England showed how effective they could be by doing the simple things well and working extremely hard.
Even when Ireland, through O'Gara, got back to all-square with two second-half penalties they were tightly-knit, effective and very disciplined.
The truth is, however, that Ireland were second best on the day but they have three more matches to play in the championship and must re-group quickly if they are to salvage something from yesterday's reverse.
England must play Wales, France and Italy and their pack will have their hands full with all three opponents. Defeat for England in any one of those matches and the championship is there to be won.
Ireland's injury list is worrying but with two weeks to get ready, they must recover their fire and their sense of ambition before they play Scotland.
They've lost one battle. . . the war is still to be decided.
IRELAND – R Kearney; C Gilroy, B O'Driscoll, G D'Arcy, S Zebo (K Earls 10); J Sexton (R O'Gara 31), C Murray; C Healy (D Kilcoyne), R Best (S Cronin 75), M Ross; M McCarthy, D Ryan (D O'Callaghan 66); P O'Mahony, S O'Brien (C Henry 66), J Heaslip.
ENGLAND – A Goode; C Ashton, B Barritt, B Twelvetrees (M Tuilagi 48), M Brown; O Farrell, B Youngs; J Marler (M Vanipola 59), T Youngs (D Hartley 51), D Cole (D Wilson 76); J Launchbury (C Lawes 48, T Waldron 71), G Parling; J Haskell, C Robshaw, T Wood.
Ref – J Garces (FFR)