Plenty for Ireland to work on as concerns grow over Bowe form
England 21-13 Ireland
The prelude to this Test match before a full house at Twickenham yesterday featured what can best be described as a giddy up version of Ireland's Call. It didn't make a bad song any better. Rather it felt like the hosts were trying to jockey their guests quickly into position, where they could be mugged.
For sure Stuart Lancaster's need was greater coming into this game. Rattled by their performances against France, England's fans demanded a big performance delivering a good win to prime them for the show that opens here in a fortnight. It started out well enough; faded in the second quarter; and then threatened to collapse altogether in the third quarter before - as you would expect of a team further down the strength and conditioning track - dominating the last 20 minutes almost completely.
Still, they only secured the game with two minutes left, so it hardly delivered the momentum surge they wanted. As for Ireland, there was a period in the third quarter when they put 10 unanswered points on the board where you thought they might be able to go on and create all sorts of problems for the World Cup hosts.
Maybe that was asking too much, for as yet they don't have the legs to stay ahead of a team whose schedule demands them to be fitter. So this panned out probably much as Joe Schmidt expected. He lost three players: Simon Zebo and Johnny Sexton to cramp, and Conor Murray who appeared to be out cold after trying to take down Joe Marler on 18 minutes.
On the form front, though, Schmidt should have real concerns over Tommy Bowe, who struggled from first to last. He was in the firing line for England's opening try, for man of the match Jonny May, and while even players of his class have momentary lapses it was hard to imagine the overlooked Andrew Trimble being bounced like that.
The coach also learned that playing Zebo at full-back is still a fraught exercise. England's sat nav coordinates were stuck on Zeboville. Restarts, pressure punts, all sorts of kicks rained down on him and he looked fatigued by the attention. If he finds himself there again during the World Cup, you'd expect whoever the opposition is then to follow suit.
The plus points were a set-piece that functioned smoothly - especially the scrum, where mostly Ireland were unmoveable, and the one penalty they conceded there in the second half had Paul O'Connell complaining bitterly of an early nudge from England.
With one try, and another close call knocked back by the TMO who wasn't exactly quicksilver with his decisions, it was inevitable that May would look like the star of the show, yet Ireland's left wing Dave Kearney was outstanding on half the ration.
Ireland trailed 12-3 at the break, which given the way they had started - conceding that try to May inside three minutes - wasn't too bad. It might have been only a two points gap at half-time had Robbie Henshaw given the excellent Kearney a more sympathetic pass off a promising attack into England's corner, but the wing had to change course to retain possession and Sean O'Brien then lost the ball in contact on the next carry. That was that.
England's other try, which with the conversion gave them a 12-3 inside the first quarter, was beautifully executed. As with the first effort, their lineout - shaky enough in the first half - was the launching point for their phase play, whereupon George Ford cross kicked to perfection towards Anthony Watson. Zebo looked comfortable as he was lining the ball up, but Watson blindsided him brilliantly in the air to touch down.
Between himself, Jonathan Joseph and May they caused a fair bit of unrest whenever they got the ball in space, but England couldn't develop the theme. Instead Ireland worked their way into the game with graft. They fell further behind on 47 minutes when Ford kicked that scrum penalty against Mike Ross, but Schmidt will be encouraged at his team's efficiency in getting points on their next two visits to the England 22. First Sexton took three points when both Marler and man of the match Tom Wood were caught for rear-foot offside in front of their sticks. O'Connell soon added extra value with a good try. It came off a lineout peel where Jack McGrath, who carried a load of ball, did well not to be done for obstruction. So England's 15-3 lead early in the second half had been whittled down to just two points. With extra carriers coming off the bench in the shape of the Vunipola brothers, and Sam Burgess, they were able to get over gain-lines handily enough.
Ireland were running on empty and shuffling personnel under pressure, allowing Owen Farrell to kick two penalties to seal the win. Unusually for a Test match there were no big losers. Ireland's ropiness is fixable ahead of the final pool game, against France, though that will involve ambition to match their improving condition. And England have two wins from their three games.
The real stuff is around the corner.
Scorers - England: May try, Watson try, Ford pen, con, Farrell 2 pens. Ireland: O'Connell try, Sexton 2 pens, con
England: M Brown; A Watson, J Joseph, B Barritt (S Burgess 61), J May; G Ford (O Farrell 61), B Youngs (R Wiggleswort 61); J Marler (M Vunipola 58), T Youngs (J George 61), D Cole (K Brookes 63), G Parling (J Launchbury 45), C Lawes, T Wood, B Morgan (B Vunipola 58), C Robshaw (capt).
Ireland: S Zebo (T Furlong 68); T Bowe, J Payne, R Henshaw (I Madigan 61), D Kearney; J Sexton (D Cave 65), C Murray (E Reddan 18); J McGrath, R Best (R Strauss 62), M Ross (N White 61-74), D Toner, P O'Connell (65), P O'Mahony, J Heaslip, S O'Brien (C Henry 62).
Referee: N Owens (Wales)
Sunday Indo Sport