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'It was like being stuck in the same game' - Johnny Sexton laments another English beating

Twickenham torment offers reality check for new era as title hopes veer off course


Elliot Daly takes advantage of some slack defensive play from Jacob Stockdale to score England’s second try. Photo: David Davies/PA Wire.

Elliot Daly takes advantage of some slack defensive play from Jacob Stockdale to score England’s second try. Photo: David Davies/PA Wire.

Elliot Daly takes advantage of some slack defensive play from Jacob Stockdale to score England’s second try. Photo: David Davies/PA Wire.

Twickenham's towering horse-shoe structure emits a cold, concreted sense of menacing order.

The team who perform within its grey walls deliver the same sense of resounding immovability. This is their cabbage patch.

"It's a tough place to try and crawl out from," notes James Ryan, perhaps the only Irishman who could hold his head high in the old smoke as the vast hordes emptied into dusky streets in search of pint glasses of reverie or regret.

Giant swathes of forests will be scythed and hours of airtime will be devoted to parsing analysis of what this means for the future of Irish rugby; there will be endless existential debates about the merits of the box-kick; this may one day indeed be offered as a PhD topic.

But a simpler and more familiar narrative unspooled in TW2 7BA; one which required very little in the manner of pointy-headed analysis or scholarly perusals of an endless slew of stats.

Ireland were once again bullied by the English; from Ireland's back-three being repeatedly shunted off the ball, to players getting ripped in the tackle or caromed backwards while the decline of the great Irish maul continued apace.

"We need to be more relentless in our physicality," notes Ryan of a topic which cannot be divined on the whiteboard or the training ground.

It is a test of the mind as much as the body and once more Ireland have failed it. This now amounts to a second successive physical pummelling at the hands of England - or three if one includes that counterfeit autumnal farce - and the genesis of this demise mirrored its predecessor.

"It was like being stuck in the same game," mutters captain Jonathan Sexton. Stuck in the moment, the diminutive balladeer Bono might have mused, were he ever to be invited into the camp again.

A prospect which may seem doubtful after this Sunday Bloody Sunday.

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Ireland didn't need a lesson in Irishness this week; rather a lesson in how to kick and catch a football might have been more urgently required.

Unearthing the reason behind their mystifying first-half passivity is also required; the coach and the players engaged in a tussle of self-blame which was arguably more fiercely contested than the actual game itself.

Somebody got something wrong somewhere and it will be everyone's job to figure out how and why because this is now an issue which traverses two coaching regimes.

"We were ready for it," says the angelic voice of the devilish Manu Tuilagi, who summed up England's preparations in one word. "MENTAL!"

"We really imposed ourselves," notes Courtney Lawes, whose references to England's preparations are writ large thanks to a bulbous black eye.

He looks like he's gone a few rounds with Tyson Fury.

"I'm more of a UFC fan so I didn't see the fight." He will, though, have appreciated the boxer's early intensity which so mirrored England's.

All the fanciful flights of the new Irish era soaring to new heights have not necessarily been grounded after this result; after all, with a title still to fight for, only the churlish will seek to confirm all their prejudices on the basis of just this one result.

Twelve months ago, Manu Tuilagi's raging bullish presence in the midfield carries brutally undid Ireland; this year, he carried three times in the game's opening throes to herald a repeat performance from himself and his team.

Emboldened by front-foot attack and defence, England then deftly ripped apart Ireland's back-field and a startled back-three with clever and precise kicking; it would be no surprise that the 14-0 lead would effectively win them this game by the 25th minute.

"They were all over us," sighs Andrew Conway, one of many whose performances dipped alarmingly within a fortnight.

Ireland's flat-line defence simply flatlined as a simple pair of chip-through kicks exposed the space amongst Ireland's back-three.

"It was very similar to last year with that chip through that they got a score off first phase that we would normally never concede," adds Sexton.

"It was like being stuck in the same game and at times, when the space was out wide we tried to get there but they shut us down."

Maro Itoje is symbolic of England's smothering, rushed defence which aided their physical domination of an Irish side who played their way into trouble.

And so an English side which had seemed lost in Paris had rediscovered themselves back home; they had last appeared here when spanking Ireland in the autumn.

From there to here, they have run all the way to a World Cup final under Eddie Jones before the very folk who were chairing him in Japan were seeking to course him out the back door after chastening defeat in Paris.

Ireland, it seems, is not alone in housing a hysterical cast of hyenas who lurch from delightful delirium to drooping despair on the evidence of just one afternoon's sport.

Those like Sexton and Tadhg Furlong and Conor Murray and most in green, who were man mountains and marvels of their sporting theatre just two weeks ago, have not now been reduced to rubble on the basis of 80 minutes in this stony crypt.

But they were reduced to a rabble; Sexton finished the game as a 12 and didn't even take the final kick; instead, his thoughts were already on the month ahead as he gathered his bruised and battered team together.

The team that started the day in a muddle ended it in a huddle.

Andy Farrell had a poor day as coach; his players had a worse day; how they react will be crucial ahead of Paris.

Italy will not define this process but it will inform it; players like Rónan Kelleher, Conor Murray and Caelan Doris will be offered licence. That will provide Ireland with a familiar romp and an unwelcome return for hyperbolic displays from the rugby faithful.

Reality will write a different script in Paris.

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