Wednesday 22 May 2019

Brent Pope: 'I noticed a ray of hope for Ireland just after half time - but they didn't exploit it'

2 February 2019; Jonathan Sexton of Ireland is tackled by Owen Farrell, left, and Elliot Daly of England during the Guinness Six Nations Rugby Championship match between Ireland and England in the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
2 February 2019; Jonathan Sexton of Ireland is tackled by Owen Farrell, left, and Elliot Daly of England during the Guinness Six Nations Rugby Championship match between Ireland and England in the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Brent Pope

ENGLAND gave a masterclass in the power game as they out-scored Ireland by four tries to two at the Aviva Staduim on Saturday.

The result is a significant one for Eddie Jones’ side, their first triumph over Ireland in Dublin since 2013, and ends a six-match winning run for Ireland in the Six Nations which stretches back to March 2017. 

After the game, the sentiment from most people was firstly shock, then some positive longer-term optimism. Better to happen now than at the World Cup.

There is an element of truth to that statement but this was a huge wake-up call for Ireland. A three-point loss would have been disappointing but this was an old-fashioned hammering.

There could be no excuses. The Irish bullies that took the yard and defeated the All Blacks a few months ago just came up against a bigger bully on Saturday.

In last Friday column, I related what some former All Blacks said to me while back home in New Zealand recently – 'Let’s see how Ireland fare now with a serious target on their back and every team wanting to up their game against them'.

The answer is not very well. While not officially ranked as the number one team in the world, it was commonly held that after a Grand Slam last year and that game against the All Blacks, that psychologically at least, Ireland were the best team on the planet.

Didn’t All Blacks coach Steve Hansen even admit that after Ireland defeated his side? But on Saturday Ireland came seriously unstuck in a performance that must rank as one of Joe Schmidt’s less impressive days at the office.

Ireland simply had no answer to England’s power, and to be honest this victory by England would have sent out a serious message to all the other World Cup wannabes.

With a few key players yet to bolster England’s ranks, they suddenly took a serious leap up the rankings with an impressive away win against an Irish team that while well organised, found themselves seriously bullied up front.

The secret against a big pack such as England’s is to try run them off their feet. But Ireland tried to match England in the collision areas, where they were coming a distant second to England’s grunt.

While the space for the home side always looked to be out wide, Ireland continued to turn the ball back infield to where players like the excellent Billy Vunipola and others lay waiting.

At one stage just after halftime, I saw small signs of England starting to tire, but rather than try and speed the game up, Ireland let England slow the play down and remain in their comfort zone.

England had three or four ball-carriers, notably the Vunipola brothers, that made the gain line with ease. Ireland possessed none. The usually industrious CJ Stander was finally pulled ashore by his coach after he failed to make the yards Schmidt would have wanted, and while replacement Seán O’Brien did some damage with ball in hand when he came on, it was far too little too late.

The sight of Ireland players being tossed around like rag dolls at times showed all of us at the game that this is not the way to play a power team like England.

Go back to the fact that Ireland were out-muscled up front. It was also a pointer to other teams gearing up for the World Cup (notably South Africa, a likely opponent for Ireland in the quarter final) on how to strangle Ireland up front.

The Irish back-line came in for some criticism but it’s hard to work any magic when you are going backwards most of the day, such was England’s defensive screen.

England’s new defensive coach, John Mitchell, deserves credit and despite his unfair statements during the week, his row of big men simply came up in a hard line and gave Ireland’s game-breakers no room to breathe.

But when that happens you have to find a way around the unmovable object, not just to attempt to just batter away.

Ireland needed to look for where the space was, notably out wide. They didn’t, and tactically played into England’s hands. In some regards when the Irish players came off the bench they made a difference, but it was too late.

If Ireland were to claw back this game, changes needed to be made earlier. Keith Earls is brave but after two heavy shots, he was clearly limping around the paddock and should have been taken off

England’s halfbacks were excellent, especially Owen Farrell, with Ben Youngs not far behind.

Up front, no Irish player could match the physicality of players like the Vunipola brothers, although Irish flanker Josh van der Flier played himself to a standstill.

Given the year, it’s not such a bad thing to be go back to the drawing board and assess things before the World Cup. That target has now slipped a bit and may be England’s to wear for a while. It may just allow Ireland to get back to being the hungry underdog.

Expect some changes for Scotland. Rob Kearney should come back to full-back, with Robbie Henshaw back in the centre. Up front, the balance of the backrow will be looked at, plus maybe the chance for Joey Carbery to get some more game time.

Joe Schmidt is the type of coach that will park it and start again. It’s certainly not the end of the world, it’s just that for the thousands of Irish supporters that traveled from such far-flung countries as Australia to watch this game, it just felt a bit like it.

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