Sunday 25 February 2018

Neil Francis: In the bread-and-butter moments when simple execution was needed, Ireland let themselves down

Ireland's Josh Van der Flier breaks through the tackles from Billy Vunipola and Mike Brown. Photo: Getty
Ireland's Josh Van der Flier breaks through the tackles from Billy Vunipola and Mike Brown. Photo: Getty
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

I did a bit of the Empire over the weekend. St Paul's was one of the bastions I visited. Every part of this great cathedral is littered with military effigies and martial paraphernalia.

Under the statues of some of the men who gave their lives for their country, you have terms like 'fell gloriously', 'signal intrepidly', 'prompt decision' - all paying homage to the extravagant wastefulness of war.

This could well describe Ireland's annual battle at Twickenham yesterday. Conventional wisdom took the view that England would always win. Ireland were marvellously competitive but just at vital moments in the game key players fluffed their lines.

It is also true to say that in some of the bread and butter moments where just simple execution of simple tasks were required, Ireland let themselves down.

For the third match in a row it was Ireland's lack of resources on the bench and most particularly their scrum which let them down.

In the second half against Wales they really struggled at scrum time. When the French cavalry arrived at Stade de France with 20 minutes to go, they saved French blushes on that occasion. With Ireland chasing the game with some conviction their scrum let them down again. Who is to say that England - 21-10 up at that stage - would let a commanding enough lead slip. Danny Care was in the bin and James Haskell was on his final, final warning and Ireland had suddenly started playing with a little bit more intelligence and no mean urgency.

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With seven minutes to play and Ireland playing most of the rugby in England's 22, they needed a solid scrum. You knew what was going to happen. England loosehead Paul Hill applied pressure, Nathan White turned sideways and collapsed, England drove forward and that was the end of that. As it was England's bench rather than coming in to finish Ireland off were forced into a rearguard action and managed to stifle Ireland's chase.

Killer blow: Jonathan Sexton of Ireland and Owen Farrell of England shake hands following the final whistle Photo: Michael Steele/Getty
Killer blow: Jonathan Sexton of Ireland and Owen Farrell of England shake hands following the final whistle Photo: Michael Steele/Getty

Once again the officials distinguished themselves for all the wrong reasons. Quite how Shaun Veldsman managed to decide that Josh van der Flier had not grounded the ball in the first instance as he got over the line was quite beyond me - 21-17 with seven minutes to play would have changed the complexion of the game.

The fact that Ireland's chase didn't come to a happy conclusion begets the fact that they were in the game at all after their first half where England themselves had got over the line but had not got downward pressure on the ball.

Ireland's defensive performance in the first half smacked of gritty realism in the face of a sustained onslaught. They were highly intelligent when the line was breached and the scramble was intelligently coordinated. Ireland weren't really at the pace of the game all the way through and couldn't hang on to the ball long enough to get into the game and here Ireland with simple things let themselves down.

Conor Murray, who had an otherwise excellent game, box-kicked four or five balls away when the ball was too flat and too long and the chaser was fully five or six metres away when the ball was caught. No pressure in the air, no pressure on the ground. It allowed England to retain the ball comfortably and choose their next point of attack. Some of Murray's passing in the first half wasn't to his usual high standard either. There were a number of missed tackles and Andrew Trimble had a nervous 40 minutes before he recovered himself.

Ireland kept trying to pass throughout the game and they did so more often than they kicked. I would not say that this was a new line of thinking or change of direction. All they were trying to do was to move England's forwards around, bring England's back three up and push it in behind. The quality of the Irish passing in the first half put themselves under pressure.

England too with all their possession in the first half and with patient overlaps on both wings just didn't have the vision, subtlety or accuracy to outwit Ireland and always got hammered in the penultimate pass.

Both sides stuck to their guns and principally the difference between the sides with ball in hand was Billy Vunipola.

After England's disastrous World Cup campaign the English players understandably had a lot of time on their hands and Vunipola ended up speaking at a couple of corporate engagements. The England number 8 was quite lippy about the England management and their lack of appreciation of their game plan and Stuart Lancaster was the butt of a number of his jokes. Normally that sort of behaviour commits you to a period of time in the wilderness but such is Vunipola's value to England that you could have put it down to a slip of the tongue.

Ireland's Josh Van der Flier breaks through the tackles from Billy Vunipola and Mike Brown. Photo: Getty
Ireland's Josh Van der Flier breaks through the tackles from Billy Vunipola and Mike Brown. Photo: Getty

Two weeks before this game everybody knew how England would be attacking us off the side of rucks or off popped balls in midfield. Of Vunipola's 20-odd carries you would have to guestimate that the first-up tackle rate was lower than 50 per cent At 23 minutes with Ireland comfortable with what England were throwing at them they were nearly hit with a sucker punch when Vunipola rolled off the left-hand side of a maul and burst down the left-hand side. Most forwards in this situation see the try line and run as fast as they can.

Vunipola showed his intelligence when almost at trotting pace he managed to beat Rob Kearney and then took off as the space opened up for him. Murray and CJ Stander did brilliantly to get him into touch less than a metre from his goal. When England had their period of ascendancy from 50 minutes onwards all the step up in pace and show of energy came from Vunipola in the lead up to Watson's and Brown's tries.

An 11-point margin with about 20 minutes to go is a difficult thing to overcome in Twickenham but Ireland chased with conviction however our game plan is just not suited to playing catch-up rugby and everybody had to be at the pitch of the optimum performance to make it work. Ireland are collaborators not innovators and if the team isn't humming and one or two individuals are making mistakes then they fail in their objective. Three or four times in the red zone Ireland made elementary errors and it cost them.

Once again the lineout failed and Rory Best and his systems came unstuck - two overthrows and one under-throw. England were also genuinely competitive in the air. In an area where they needed to retain the ball they coughed it up. More misses than Henry VIII.

The new blood had their moments. Van der Flier was top scorer in the tackle front and was lively throughout. On this performance which was pockmarked with a little bit of inexperience he is good enough to have a long career at this level. McCloskey did well and ran forcefully. I suspect that Jared Payne will be fit for the Italian game and will be brought back in.

Yet another player who was not overawed, he has good hands and was patient in defence. Ultan Dillane also showed what a forceful player he can be. Donnacha Ryan had one of his best games for Ireland yesterday and you would wonder why he did not start every game so far. If all remain healthy, Ireland's temporary crisis at second-row is averted for the moment.

We had justifiable ambitions of winning yesterday but Ireland were probably five per cent off where they needed to be and so we return to that inexhaustible well of renewable optimism to sustain us for wins against Italy and Scotland.

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