Tuesday 16 January 2018

Vincent Hogan: England undone by grand sense of themselves

Tom Wood prepares to tackle Johnny Sexton as the Irish No 10 passes the ball. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Tom Wood prepares to tackle Johnny Sexton as the Irish No 10 passes the ball. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Close to half-time, Joe Marler's mouth took him into territory his legs couldn't follow and Sean O'Brien had to be restrained from exacting retribution.

A poorly timed English smirk can be an incendiary thing on these days, as so many ingrained old spites are virtuously passed down from one generation to another. The Tullow man had just spilled a ball and Marler took the opportunity to goad.

England were grinning then, but they were also losing.

It felt like we'd been here before: a dirty, grey Dublin day, a field glycerined with rain and an Irish team programmed to invite every smart-ass to settle things like men.

Marler was last off the field at the interval and did not return, with Eddie Jones seemingly concluding that it was bad enough to be second-best in the fight, worse to be acting the pillock while you're sinking.

As such, it materialised into a resolutely old-fashioned day in the futuristic silver bowl, one re-affirming the kind of principles that applied when this place was still ivy-clad and gap-toothed and hopelessly, horribly draughty.

Ireland were wonderful, that much is true. But they were wonderful for such core, simplistic reasons that you couldn't but feel oddly exasperated.

Yesterday's match reports were, after all, largely a chronicling of how bloody-mindedness trumped size. The fight in the dog and all that. An age-old narrative.

And it left Jones's men waving to ghosts in the darkened stands as champions, but fall-guys.


Had he been out-smarted by Joe Schmidt? Maybe so, maybe not. Planning and tactics often seem a lot less important than anger in rugby and you do have to wonder if, sometimes, people are guilty of over-intellectualising the game.

A coaches' box looks like a launch station in Cape Canaveral these days, everybody miked up and staring solemnly into a bank of laptops. What exactly do they see?

Ireland, remember, were undone in Edinburgh by a Scottish centre stepping into the front of a lineout and scoring a try because, it seemed, nobody noticed his arrival. In Cardiff, we lost a try that might have won the game because Robbie Henshaw (magnificent on Saturday) didn't know the rules.

Modern sport (GAA included) gets dressed in such self-important clothes now, it's hard not to suspect there is a lot more information about than wisdom.

And England on a pedestal just can't seem to help themselves. They get drawn to hubris like sailors on shore leave so distracted by the sight of a lifted hem they forget what time their ship is sailing. It seems a lack of the adult self-awareness through which they might recognise this as a story that keeps repeating itself.

Jones didn't re-invent England. He just made the mistake of feeding the very conceits that weaken them.

Between his pre-game parodying of Ireland's tactical limitations and a scrum coach musing how Warren Gatland might, wisely, bring six English front-rows to New Zealand, England's sense of superiority was all but pasted across a billboard.

And maybe the most revealing post-game quote came from Billy Vunipola.

"It's amazing how emotionally charged Ireland were today," sighed the vast English No.8. Really? You could imagine England never previously came upon an Ireland team with a chip on its shoulder. When they next gather for a trip to Dublin, perhaps the chariots should scrap all video analysis and just sit down to watch something like The Wind That Shakes the Barley.

On Saturday, their strategy didn't extend far beyond endlessly knocking Johnny Sexton over like a human skittle and waiting for him to limp to the stand.

But Sexton wouldn't go. He kept picking himself back up and inviting them to take another swing. Maro Itoje obliged regularly, but short of pulling a magnum from his pocket he was wasting his time trying to spook the Irish No.10.

Sexton is the best fly-half in the Six Nations, yet Gatland must have had mixed feelings on Saturday observing the frequency with which contact left him on the floor. After all, if England's back-rowers are quick around the side, the All Blacks make them look pedestrian.

Sexton is a stone heavier and four inches taller than George Ford, yet - ferocious as Ireland were on Saturday - the little Bath 10 barely got mud on his shorts.

Actually, Gatland would have been excused a frown on Saturday evening, given how cloudy this Six Nations has left his summer hand.

Jones speculated afterwards that up to 15 English men will still be on that Lions plane and, it's true, a run of 18 consecutive Test victories probably reveals more than 80 ramshackle minutes in Dublin's wind and rain does.

However, England's sense of themselves was challenged on Saturday. And they buckled.

Men like Peter O'Mahony, Donnacha Ryan, Sexton, Henshaw and, thrillingly, the ever-elegant Gary Ringrose met them toe-to-toe in a contest played out with aggression-flooding rib cages.

In possession, Ireland seemed especially loath to deploy the old Randwick wraparound that, of late, has begun to look predictable.

When they did attempt one in the 48th minute, CJ Stander's return pass to Sexton arrived pretty much in tandem with a dangerously high Itoje.

That was the tenor of it. On the hour, Rory Best could be heard remonstrating with referee Jerome Garces: "I have a responsibility to my team for their safety!" England, by now, were reduced to chasing yards through lineout mauls, the midfield that had eviscerated Scotland nowhere to be seen.

And even Jones' so-called "finishers" ended up outshone by Schmidt's replacements, five of whom boasted a grand total of 10 international caps between them.

So the stadium became a playground of just about every emotion. And this England team, which hype had informed us would not even be subdued by a concentration of naval and air firepower, was reduced to desperate, panicked passes inside their own '22'.

It finished with Mike Brown's knock-on and, for anyone remembering Conor Murray's fate at the bottom of a ruck in Twickenham last year, that felt apposite.

Irish Independent

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