Saturday 25 November 2017

Hunger for fight proves decisive

Defensive mastery squeezes life out of visitors and offers hope for future, writes Neil Francis

David Wallace, Ireland, evades the tackle of Nick Easter, England. Photo: Sportsfile
David Wallace, Ireland, evades the tackle of Nick Easter, England. Photo: Sportsfile

They say death and taxes are inevitable, but death doesn't get any worse every time the Dail meets on budget day. It was inevitable that Ireland were going to ruin England's day and for Martin Johnson, every time he watches the video of this match it will get worse and worse.

Ireland, having completely dominated this game, showed an ungovernable air of self-satisfaction in the afterglow of a job well done. This performance crystallises the sentiment that Ireland are still quite a decent team and though England have demonstrated forward momentum, they are not the team that they think they are and they will have to guess again if they want to come up with a Grand Slam.

It is true that the mere sight of a white jersey with a red rose on it will galvanise the fighting and competitive spirit within every Irish player and Ireland showed a hunger that would drive the wolf from the forest. How can you define hunger? More importantly how do you exploit it? Ireland for the first time in this championship were not compromised by the 'try harder' factor and they played with uncompromising excellence and unambiguous determination.

England went into this match without their leader. Mike Tindall is nowhere near being the best centre in the world but he was instrumental in getting them into a position where they were a match away from a Grand Slam. Lewis Moody too was a big loss and the people entrusted with showing direction came up well short. Nick Easter would have to show an awful lot more leadership than just questioning Bryce Lawrence's decisions as they happen.

Body language is a key determinate in how you see a team perform. You could see it in England's key positions, particularly at half-back -- Ben Youngs and Toby Flood did not demonstrate to their team-mates the focus and engagement of players that were going to control the game for them and there was negative emotion in a lot of what they did. That spreads like a contagion, the negative expression of emotion in an athlete. Ben Foden picked up the bug too. This season he has been a catalyst for England but he was compressed, corralled and closed off and England, even though they had plenty of possession, were lateral to the point of monotony. They played with a passion, verve and pizzazz of a meter reader XV.

For the first time in the championship Ireland went out to win the game, which might seem uncharitable but last week in Cardiff they played rope-a-dope, sat back, absorbed what Wales threw at them and hoped to hit them on the counter. The change in direction was refreshing and it showed a revelation of character from many of Ireland's better players, none more so than Jonathan Sexton. There has been subconscious negative emotions surrounding everything he has done on and off the pitch this season.

It showed the guy still has buckets of intestinal fortitude as he expressed himself brilliantly out on the paddock and all of his competitive anxieties were brushed to one side as he kicked with supreme confidence.

The quality of his execution meant that England's back three had very little space or time to initiate a counter attack and again his kicks were devilishly angled to such an extent that there was always a net gain for Ireland as England's back three couldn't get a shot at a decent angle. Sexton's confidence spread, Reddan inside him played with surety and maturity. His passing was crisp and direct, some of his box kicks were a little overcooked but his speed of thought and his ability to break were constant threats.

On the debit side, not for the first time in his career, he has thrown an intercept pass to a forward malingering at the tail of the lineout -- Juan Smith of South Africa will join Steve Thompson in that little club.

Ireland were wonderfully competitive at the breakdown. The early bird may get the worm but it's the second mouse that gets the cheese. Quite often Ireland threw numbers in to the breakdown, whether the ball was up off the deck or whether it was on the ground and this meant that they picked off some invaluable turnovers in this area, particularly when England had multi-phased. This broke the English hearts.

Ireland looked dangerous every time they got the ball in good field position. A lot of this confidence was based on a surprisingly good set-piece. Greg Feek's holistic approach at scrum time means that Ireland's scrummage as a whole is impressive and you cannot put their confidence, nay ascendancy, in this area down to one individual in the pack.

Johnson could sense from very early on that his back row simply weren't good enough at the breakdown nor were their runners aggressive or competitive enough when they took the ball into contact against this wonderfully composed and controlled Irish defence. A lot of what Ireland did with their back row was based around a vastly improved performance from Jamie Heaslip. Sean O'Brien is just too hot to handle and if he was stopped on the gain line momentarily, he had the power and determination to get over it again.

Jonny Wilkinson, when he came on, really made the situation worse for England as he threw lofted passes out to his wider outfield and really he should have been looking for his wingers to come in to help him.

Ashton we only got brief glimpses of and England, even though they cleared the bench, had no appreciable difference to how they tried to up the ante. O'Gara came on in 70th minute, when the job had been done and the scoreline was unshakeable. Not only did he close the game out well but he tormented England with three or four delicious cross-field touch finders deep into their own territory when England needed to be on the ball and in Irish territory. In the space of 80 minutes it is now England who have half-back problems and Ireland who have gone some measure of the way into solving their particular issues.

We cannot get away from the fact that Ireland have once again lost out on a Grand Slam. Small margins and the difference that Keith Earls at full-back set them on their way to partially absolve them from their former sins.

Sunday Indo Sport

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