Wednesday 22 November 2017

Failure to take chances haunts Schmidt's side at Twickenham

England 21 Ireland 10

Irieland's Josh van der Flier avoids the attentions of England's Mike Brown. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Irieland's Josh van der Flier avoids the attentions of England's Mike Brown. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Robbie Henshaw stretches for the try-line as he’s put into touch by England’s Jack Nowell. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Ireland's Rhys Ruddock is tackled by England's Mako Vunipola, left, and Jonathan Joseph. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Ireland's Stuart McCloskey is tackled by England's Dylan Hartley during their Six Nations clash at Twickenham
Ireland's Jonathan Sexton is tackled by England's George Kruis. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

After Saturday's game, in between impatient exchanges with Irish journalists, England coach Eddie Jones opined that a 20- or 30-point win for his team would have been a fairer reflection of events at Twickenham.

Later, Rob Kearney reckoned the 11-point margin "flattered" the hosts, while Joe Schmidt reckoned that Ireland were a bit of luck and a bit of composure away from winning in London.

"If you calculate how many almosts and potentially you could factor in there, there doesn't seem to be a massive gap in a two tries to one game, it's not a massive distance," he said.

All three were talking about the same game and, despite the contradictions, they were all right.

A better attack than England's would have been out of sight at half-time in Twickenham, yet having hung in desperately at times during a punishing first 40 minutes, the visitors wrested control of the match and the scoreboard in an excellent post-half-time cameo that was capped by Conor Murray's try.

Then, the failings that have plagued this campaign returned to haunt Schmidt's side who lost the second-half 15-7 despite having 71pc possession and 73pc territory against a team down to 14 men for 18 minutes.

Immediately after the try, Devin Toner gave away a cheap penalty which allowed Owen Farrell draw England within one point before Johnny Sexton's uncharacteristic knock-on - seconds after he was blindsided by Ben Youngs - handed England the ball from which they scored their first try through Anthony Watson.


After living dangerously in defence all day, the men in green were finally punished in the wide channels by an English attack that does not look far away from being the real deal. Minutes later, they got over again as Mike Brown exploited an overlap and, with a quarter of the game still remaining, an old-fashioned Twickenham hammering beckoned.

Instead, Ireland finished on the front-foot, were denied a try by Jack Nowell's brilliant tackle on Robbie Henshaw in the corner and another by the television match official who somehow contrived to miss Josh van der Flier's grounding of the ball for what should have been a debut try.

Yet, for all that they can blame the officials, Ireland coughed up possession in the red-zone far too easily for the third successive game with their set-piece now a real cause for concern.

They have now gone four games without a win for the first time since Declan Kidney's last season and that was the kind of form that saw the Grand Slam-winning coach relieved of his commission.

No one is calling for Schmidt's head and the slide should be arrested against Italy and Scotland in Dublin, but with three Tests against South Africa, two against New Zealand and one against Australia still to come in 2016 there is a pressing need to improve now.

Schmidt used the word "transition" unprompted in the post-match exchanges, while lamenting the fact that an England team, younger and less experienced than his own, had better formed combinations than his own.

That comes down to Stuart Lancaster's brave selection policies during his time in charge. Jones has inherited a group of young players with a decent bank of international experience, while Maro Itoje showed what the future holds for a country that has won two of the last three U-20 World Cups.

While Lancaster built a team that looks like it could be brilliant in 2019, Schmidt put together a side that was primed to perform at last year's World Cup until the costly win over France brought all that momentum to a halt.

The performances of Josh van der Flier, Stuart McCloskey, Ultan Dillane, Robbie Henshaw, Jack McGrath and CJ Stander should point the way for the head coach. For all that he has lamented the lack of experience in his team, it was the young guns who provided the high points for Ireland at Twickenham.

Sure, McCloskey and Stander still have raw edges to iron out, but there is enough physical potential there to stick with and both were prominent during Ireland's resurgence after half-time.

It is the experienced players who must come up to the mark. Captain Rory Best and vice-captain Jamie Heaslip were both outplayed by their opposite numbers and, while there were good performances in the visiting ranks there were outstanding ones in white.

The key man was Billy Vunipola who Ireland couldn't handle from minute one. A No 8 posting the kind of metres-gained stats that a full-back might expect was a remarkable sight.

Ireland can't produce players of the Tongan's abilities, so they must find another way and encouragement can be drawn from the sight of backs and forwards passing the ball in neat moves that pulled the England defence apart and helped create seven line-breaks.

Whether a result of Jones' goading or not, Schmidt encouraged his team to attack through a ground-game that struggled in the face of the home side's aggressive line-speed in the first half but, having stuck with it, began to thrive after half-time.

The toll of the massive defensive effort in the first half told, however, and the coach may reflect on his reluctance to send for reinforcements before the hour-mark when he watches England's tries again.

Victory against Italy is paramount, but it important that the coach continues to develop the style of play his side showed while also giving experience to new faces.

"It hasn't been smooth sailing and it wasn't again today but I think that builds a bit of character," he said.

"One thing I wouldn't question about the players is their character. They demonstrated that today, they also demonstrated the enterprise to create opportunities that unfortunately we didn't capitalise on."

Certainly, this wasn't one of the really bad days at a venue where losing never sits well with Irish teams.

The new faces added optimism, as did the committed defensive effort and the expansive attempts to come back.

If Ireland can start scoring tries, there will be room for real optimism about a new breed but that is easier said than done. Just ask Scotland.

England - M Brown; A Watson, J Joseph, O Farrell (E Daly 65), J Nowell; G Ford, B Youngs (D Care 60); J Marler (M Vunipola 70), D Hartley (capt) (J George 71), D Cole; M Itoje, G Kruis, C Robshaw (J Clifford 71), J Haskell (C Lawes77), B Vunipola.

Ireland - R Kearney; A Trimble, R Henshaw, S McCloskey (S Zebo 64), K Earls; J Sexton (I Madigan 77), C Murray (E Reddan 71); J McGrath (C Healy 60), R Best (R Strauss 71), M Ross (N White 60); D Toner (U Dillane 66), D Toner; CJ Stander (R Ruddock 67), J van der Flier, J Heaslip.

Ref - R Poite (France)

Irish Independent

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