Saturday 18 November 2017

Brilliant Ireland set World Cup benchmark

Ireland 19 England 9

Ruaidhri O'Conor

This was a statement from Ireland about their place in the world.

Victory over England might set up a Grand Slam, but such a comprehensive dismantling of the World Cup hosts sent out a message about what Joe Schmidt's side could achieve in 2015.

Robbie Henshaw wins the aerial battle with England’s Alex Goode before scoring the game’s only try
Robbie Henshaw wins the aerial battle with England’s Alex Goode before scoring the game’s only try
Man of the match Robbie Henshaw after the RBS Six Nations match against England
Ireland’s Conor Murray kicks under pressure from England’s George Kruis (right) and James Haskell at the Aviva Stadium
England's wing Jack Nowell scores a late try for England but it is disallowed
Jonathan Sexton of Ireland kicks at goal during the RBS Six Nations match between Ireland and England at the Aviva Stadium
Conor Murray of Ireland is pursued by George Ford of England during the RBS Six Nations match between Ireland and England at the Aviva Stadium
Johnny Sexton, who attempts to hand off Jonathan Joseph, has played three hard games in three weeks
England's Ben Youngs is blocked down by Ireland's Paul O'Connell
Jonathan Sexton leaves the pitch during the second half.

Here were the two best international teams in Europe playing a high-quality, up-tempo game and going toe to toe for an exhilarating 80 minutes and it was the home side who looked further along in their development and more capable of achieving great things when autumn comes around.

Stuart Lancaster pointed out that Ireland had kicked the ball 44 times repeatedly. The England coach said he knew exactly what was coming from Ireland, yet his team were powerless to stop it.

Although the aerial dominance accounted for much of what was good about the champions' display, there was far more strings to their bow this time around as they recorded their 10th successive win, equalling an Irish record set in 2003.

The entire team operated with a type of controlled frenzy that must be so hard to achieve without crossing the line. They hunted in packs, playing with huge intensity but rarely overstepping the mark and holding their discipline throughout.

Savoured

There was no attempt by the coach or his captain to play this one down. If there is room to improve, that will be addressed when they re-assemble in Belfast this week, but for once the perfectionist was almost satisfied with his team's performance. It was clear this was one to be savoured.

"For once, I didn't have my heart in my mouth," he said of the endgame.

"I'm not going to think about going forward for another 24 hours. I'm just going to enjoy this. I snuck home last night to read a bedtime story to my son. He was pumped for the game because as long as we win he doesn't have to do homework and so he is a massive Irish supporter as a result.

"We're a pretty grounded bunch and you stay pretty grounded, but at the same time you do get a little bit excited.

"It's exciting to have beaten England, it's exciting to be in the position we are in. I am certainly just going to enjoy this. I'm pretty fatigued actually."

Asked if this performance was a benchmark that his side could take forward, he agreed that it was.

"Yeah, elements of it definitely," he said. "I still think there's some things that you go back to 2013 (versus New Zealand) where we got over the line a few times early in the game and the ball was put down, to have got over the line a few times and not quite got the full reward for it...

"We got a couple of three-pointers which, in the context of an England Test match, they're crucial and they allowed us to build a little bit of scoreboard pressure early in the game and thankfully that scoreboard pressure accumulated through the second half to the extent that really they were forced to play maybe outside their comfort zone."

Ireland started like a train, stating their intent when Simon Zebo caught George Ford's kick-off and headed infield. Within a minute, Johnny Sexton was kicking his first penalty. The tone had been set.

The enormity of the occasion seemed to infect England with a wave of indiscipline and the home side were only too happy to use penalties as an access point to attack.

Sexton and Conor Murray's kicking put the back three under pressure, with Zebo and Tommy Bowe excellent on the chase and Jack Nowell's failure to deal with a well-placed bomb meant Alex Goode was forced to concede a five-metre scrum.

From there, Robbie Henshaw and Jack McGrath had initial goes at the line, but ultimately Rory Best's attempt to score was held up. Ireland went again and, although the tryline wouldn't be breached thanks to some excellent England defence, Sexton got to double the lead after another Haskell indiscretion.

Ireland were playing with huge intensity with Sexton leading the defensive line and putting huge pressure on young pretender George Ford who nailed a drop-goal to get his side off the mark after the visitors' first foray into Irish territory.

Jordi Murphy was terrorising them at the breakdown, while McGrath was making inroads with ball in hand and Henshaw's carrying and tackling was doing huge damage. The brilliant half-backs peppered the English back three with contestable kicks and Zebo and Tommy Bowe caused havoc.

Still, the scoreboard wasn't quite ticking along to match the performance and, when Sean O'Brien carried hard at Ford and came off the worst with a head injury, it could have been a real blow.

Instead, Tommy O'Donnell carried on where the Tullow man left off, even running a play with one of his first touches and earning huge praise from his coach.

The game plan was varied and Schmidt showed off far more of his box of tricks than he has to date.

"It was a real mix," he said. "We did want to try and get the ball into play and play through a number of phases, and I felt that we started really positively doing that."

Ireland were far more disciplined than their opponents who were lucky to survive with 15 men. They went 9-3 in front through another Sexton penalty after 21 minutes, but failed to add to their total despite a dominant second quarter and a clever move in the final minute that was close to putting Henshaw through.

Although they should have been further in front, Schmidt's side refused to panic and the fly-half nudged them outside a converted try with his fourth penalty after Chris Robshaw came from the side, but the coup de grace was still to come.

It started with a ferocious Zebo chase, with the winger nailing Anthony Watson and his team-mates following up with a turnover from the ruck.

This time, Ireland wouldn't be denied and after a Sexton wraparound saw England drift offside, Conor Murray dinked the ball over the top for Henshaw to beat Alex Goode in the air and brilliantly touch down his first try for Ireland.

Capitalised

Sexton nailed the touchline conversion, but tweaked his hamstring doing it and the physical effort began to take its toll elsewhere as England came back into it.

Ford capitalised on a collapsed scrum and Peter O'Mahony going off his feet to narrow the gap to 10, but while they piled on the pressure in the closing stages, the visitors couldn't make it count, Billy Vunipola inexplicably chipping the ball when the direct route would have sufficed, while Nick Easter crashed into Billy Twelvetrees on the line.

England did cross the line in the last play, but Nowell's try was ruled out for a forward pass in the build-up. It was immaterial. Ireland had held out and made a little bit of history in a year that is promising to be one to remember.

IRELAND - R Kearney; T Bowe, J Payne (F Jones 71), R Henshaw, S Zebo; J Sexton (I Madigan 55), C Murray; J McGrath (C Healy 58), R Best (S Cronin 74), M Ross (M Moore 58); D Toner (I Henderson 65), P O'Connell; P O'Mahony, S O'Brien (T O'Donnell 25), J Murphy.

ENGLAND - A Goode; A Watson, J Joseph (B Twelvetrees 68), L Burrell, J Nowell; G Ford, B Youngs (R Wigglesworth 68); J Marler (M Vunipola 65), D Hartley (T Youngs 54), D Cole; D Attwood (N Easter 68), G Kruis; J Haskell (T Croft 62), C Robshaw, B Vunipola.

Ref - C Joubert (South Africa)

Player ratings

Rob Kearney (8)

Another assured performance from one of the team's leaders who outplayed Alex Goode from start to finish and barely put a foot wrong. Heavily involved throughout.

Tommy Bowe (7)

Lorded it in the air against Jack Nowell and was involved in open play. Switched to centre in the final 10 minutes when Jared Payne was forced off and wasn't found wanting in defence.

Jared Payne (7)

The foil for Henshaw's explosiveness, Payne is all subtle touches and intelligent carries. He left the play with a head injury after making a crucial tackle in the open field.

Robbie Henshaw (9)

A sensational display from the Athlone native despite injuring his ankle during the first half. Ireland's top tackler, he carried hard and pulled off a Shane Horgan-esque try to cap it off.

Simon Zebo (9)

Zebo will haunt Anthony Watson's dreams after his best display for Ireland. Lorded it in the air and set up the try with a monster tackle. Then, when Watson threatened, he hunted him down.

Johnny Sexton (8)

His hamstring injury will give Joe Schmidt sleepless nights ahead of the Wales game and Ireland declined in his absence. As good in defence as with ball in hand.

Conor Murray (9)

Another 80 minute performance from a scrum-half growing in stature with every game. Physically and strategically dominant and dangerous with ball in hand.

Jack McGrath (8)

Another with a career-high performance level, particularly during the opening 20 minutes when he popped up with ball in hand time and time again. Didn't take a backward step.

Rory Best (8)

Hadn't been his greatest championship up until yesterday, but the Ulster captain repaid his coach's faith with a strong performance in defence, attack and at the breakdown.

Mike Ross (7)

Held his own once again at the scrum and showed up in the open field when asked to carry. Earning Joe Schmidt's backing on a weekly basis.

Devin Toner (8)

A benchmark performance from the second row whose lineout steal from James Haskell was vital, while his industry around the park with and without the ball was excellent.

Paul O'Connell (8)

The captain is showing few signs of his age as he led from the front with a dominant performance. Doesn't make many metres with ball in hand, but an important contribution.

Peter O'Mahony (8)

Was out on his feet at the end after a performance in which the Corkman gave absolutely everything. Carried, tackled, rucked his heart out and made a lineout steal to boot.

Sean O'Brien (7)

Didn't want to leave the fray after coming off the worst from a collision with George Ford, but showed what Ireland have been missing during his abrasive 24 minutes.

Jordi Murphy (7)

The absence of Jamie Heaslip was a concern going in, but the Leinster youngster was a dynamic addition, a terror at the breakdown and gave an intelligent performance.

Replacements

Tommy O'Donnell (8) was outstanding when introduced as a replacement for O'Brien, taking over where the Tullowman had left off. Ian Madigan (6) will be a little disappointed with how Ireland's control slipped on his watch, although Schmidt praised his defensive contribution. Marty Moore (6) and Cian Healy (7) made an impact, while Iain Henderson's (6) energy levels were much needed. Felix Jones and Sean Cronin weren't on long enough to rate.

Joe Schmidt (9)

The coach deserves huge credit once again for his team's tenth successive win. Stuart Lancaster said he knew what was coming, but Ireland's execution was top class.

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