Monday 20 November 2017

Tony Ward: England turned up for dogfight – we simply didn't

England's Tom Wood holds off Jonathan Sexton during their Six Nations rugby match at Aviva stadium in Dublin
England's Tom Wood holds off Jonathan Sexton during their Six Nations rugby match at Aviva stadium in Dublin
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

There was a time when an Irish team waking up in a Dublin hotel would thank the heavens for conditions like those prevailing in the metropolis yesterday. But that was then, this is now.

The last thing Ireland wanted was what they got: soft and slippery conditions, making crisp ball-handling impossible. For England, by contrast, the task of coming to Dublin and winning was made that bit easier.

The power of the pack, allied to impact of their bench, would see England home in a dogfight. Such was the general feeling immediately before, and nothing that followed in 80 frustrating minutes ever hinted at anything different.

Apart from yet another sublime delivery to his left wing (this time a cut-out pass to Keith Earls) from Brian O'Driscoll, I cannot recall another line break of significance by either side in the entire game. But when it comes to playing suffocation rugby, the English still do it better than most and, certainly on yesterday's overwhelming evidence, much better than Ireland.

Nothing fancy, just a juggernaut exerting the right amount of pressure in the right areas and driven by a pair of half-backs in Ben Youngs and Owen Farrell whose footballing nous included a tactical appreciation way beyond their years. They ran the show.

Skipper Chris Robshaw was named the official man-of-the-match – it could equally have been Farrell or Youngs or for that matter full-back Alex Goode, such was the performance of the basics by all four in key sectors.

There were some good individual efforts in green, but collectively England dominated a match in which they adapted better to the conditions and drove that advantage home. The rugby was far from spectacular, but, like their new head coach, it was down-to-earth attention to the basics.

When it comes to getting down and getting dirty, England do it for their main man. It's early days, but on this evidence they are developing into some force ahead of World Cup 2015.

Yesterday wasn't about winning pretty, it was just about winning.

In Farrell, they possess the coolest and most calculated of playmakers. He ran the show seamlessly, with his second-half kick (taking play up to the Irish line just ahead ahead of his third successful penalty) arguably the play of the game given its timing and context. He is already a certainty to travel Down Under with the Lions this summer.

From an Irish perspective, there were few positives. Yes, we were within a converted try of taking it on the scoreboard right to the bitter end, but save for James Haskell's exit to the bin and Ronan O'Gara's subsequent penalty (brilliantly struck), we never looked like threatening the English defence.

The word 'control' applied to one team and it wasn't the one in green. The better team, playing the more pragmatic pressure rugby, deservedly won in the end and though it was very far from pretty, there can be no argument from this side of the Irish Sea on that count.

The Ireland scrum went better than expected, the line-out was reasonable, the broken exchanges full-on, but in truth it was Robshaw, Haskell and the rest of Lancaster's men who always looked in control.

It was England's tempo and England's match. First-half injuries to Simon Zebo and Jonny Sexton sure didn't help, but we would be dealing in fantasy were we to suggest that had either remained on the pitch, we might somehow have dug this one out.

There is no shame in losing to England right now. The frustration is in being denied the conditions to give it a better shot. Four penalties to two seems like a scoreline from a bygone age, but it was a fair reflection of yesterday's encounter. To hint at anything different would be to delude ourselves.

By coincidence, it was on the same day 40 years ago (February 10, 1973) that John Pullin led England out at the same venue and into Irish rugby and cultural history. That English visit will never, ever be forgotten. For sure yesterday's will.

Irish Independent

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