Sunday 24 February 2019

Ireland ambushed: Reality check as England steamroll Schmidt’s men

Johnny Sexton shows his disappointment after Ireland’s 32-20 defeat to England at the Aviva Stadium yesterday Photo: PA
Johnny Sexton shows his disappointment after Ireland’s 32-20 defeat to England at the Aviva Stadium yesterday Photo: PA
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

What was widely predicted to be a tight affair turned into a hiding for Ireland at a packed Aviva yesterday - their first Six Nations defeat since losing to Wales in 2017 and their first home defeat in this competition in the Joe Schmidt reign.

And to compound matters, Ireland have a handful of injury concerns ahead of the trip to Murrayfield next weekend.

Keith Earls, who spent much of his 40 minutes on the field defusing bombs put up to him by England's half-backs, injured a hip pointer and didn't appear for the second half. Devin Toner, Garry Ringrose and CJ Stander all have issues as well. With Iain Henderson and Tadhg Beirne already out of the picture, Ireland's depth at second row - which is better than most - will be under serious pressure.

Inevitably, any fall-off from a team rated second in the world leads to questions about the World Cup prospects in Japan in the autumn. Joe Schmidt conceded that Eddie Jones' prediction that it would be a brutal Test match was accurate, and that is was the home team who were brutalised.

"Yeah it is a reality check," Schmidt said. "That's how it's going to be (at the World Cup). England are literally a big team. They played very well. It's hard to take anything away from them. It was more a simmering physical intensity that they delivered. It was a very suffocating place to be, out on the pitch."

Frequently since he took over from Declan Kidney in summer 2013, Schmidt has got one over on his opposing coach, but while the closing game of last season's Six Nations went emphatically his way, securing a Grand Slam, Jones won this one hands down. England's kicking game was first class and they made life difficult not just for Earls, but for Robbie Henshaw as well.

Playing it all with a straight bat and a barely concealed smile, Jones said: "We just wanted to create space, and kicking is one way to do that and we managed to do it. The execution and chasing was very good. We didn't target anyone in particular. It didn't matter who they had at full-back, they could have had Lance Armstrong at full-back. The intensity is key when you play against Ireland. We were prepared for that and to win that battle. We ripped in and shaded them in that area. We know they're a top team and well coached but our early intensity was outstanding."

Despite conceding twice as many penalties (eight) as Ireland, England were able to win at a canter. Their tactic of crowding the space ahead of their own kick-receiver meant Ireland could not do any damage from an area where frequently they have a pronounced edge.

"They did their homework and they denied us access in the aerial game," Schmidt said. "They saw how it was going to be refereed. Keith Earls was taken out and taken out again, and then we had to take him off. We have to win those battles but it's hard when you get taken out."

Schmidt was referring to an incident when Maro Itoje escaped a card for flattening Earls ahead of the ball.

Jones was delighted with it all. "The nine and 10 executed our game-plan," he said. "These guys can play rugby. My job is to create the environment for them to get better, and hopefully we're doing that and we will definitely get better. The leadership took a step forward today. We kept our composure and played to the referee as much as we could."

The next step for England comes at Twickenham on Sunday, against France.

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