England made a really poor start in Twickenham yesterday, and never properly recovered. For the first 10 minutes they made it easy for Ireland, giving away silly penalties, consistently getting caught offside.
What should have been a huge advantage - playing at home in front of 80,000 fans - was nullified as they kept handing possession back to their visitors. Ireland, by contrast, showed tactical clarity and discipline right from the word go; who was carrying, when they were carrying, who was supporting them when they carried, who was next in. Everyone knew their roles, with and without the ball.
When Johnny Sexton kicked that early up-and-under you just knew it would lead to problems. Anthony Watson fumbled and Ireland's follow-up was so good. When Sexton missed that penalty after 21 minutes, Ireland's follow-up again was exemplary. They regained possession on the halfway, Sexton ran a loop, Bundee Aki broke clear and CJ Stander scored against the upright. England by contrast looked frantic. Desperate to do something but not quite clear how to do it.
They kicked for the corner four times in one spell in the first half, when Peter O'Mahony was sin-binned, and ended up getting turned over. Joe Schmidt will take the plaudits, and rightly so. But a lot of credit must go to Andy Farrell. Ireland let in three tries again (as they did against Italy and Wales), but when it mattered, at the key moments, they were so disciplined. Every player took responsibility.
At the start of the second half, England again had a five-minute spell when they really applied some consistent pressure. I think they went through 14 phases at one point inside Ireland's 22. Ireland did not miss one tackle in that period. Eventually Daly was penalised for a head roll and Ireland were able to clear their lines. It was brilliant defence.
Eddie Jones said afterwards that he felt his team were improving. And while there will undoubtedly be murmurings of discontent at that, given the fact England won the previous two Six Nations titles and ostensibly took a big step backwards in this campaign, I think there is some truth in what Eddie said. In the context of the last month if nothing else, England have improved. This was a step forward from the Scotland and France defeats. It should have been, mind you, given the fact England were playing at Twickenham. The build-up to Farrell's grubber through for Elliot Daly's first try was their best passage of play in the match.
They showed they could mix it up, getting a variety of carriers on the ball, kicking in behind Ireland. That was the blueprint for how this England team should play. They also had a spell in the last 10 minutes of the game when they put Ireland under consistent pressure, scoring three tries in the end. England are not far off being a good team. Wigglesworth and Farrell was a better balance at nine and 10. James Haskell and Chris Robshaw made it a battle at the breakdown. There is not much wrong with the back three or outside backs. You keep coming back to the midfield and the back-row, though.
England are really struggling to get the right balance there. Billy Vunipola, in particular, is a huge absence. I think there is going to be a lot of hand-wringing about the Premiership and the demands it places on England players, compared with the Pro14 and the demands it places on Ireland's. Farrell has played 1,200 minutes this season to Sexton's 600. Sometimes less is more.
Tadhg Furlong was given man of the match, and he had a fine game, but Conor Murray, for me, just shaded it. His control of Ireland's forwards, his control of territory - particularly with his partner in crime, Johnny Sexton, off the pitch - were exemplary. He and Sexton remain so crucial to the way Schmidt wants his team to play. But Ireland have growing strength in depth. The way they coped without Sexton, the way Joey Carbery filled in - Schmidt will be delighted with the minutes he got in a high-intensity, high-pressure fixture - the way Jacob Stockdale and James Ryan have stepped up to the plate. Ireland are in fantastic shape.
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Comment & Analysis
Is this the greatest Irish rugby team of all time? The 2009 squad probably had more household names, men who had changed the mindset of Irish rugby players and fans at both provincial and international level from plucky contenders to winners.