Saturday 26 May 2018

Joe Schmidt's men stand tall after first-half blitz

England 15 Ireland 24

Jacob Stockdale touches down Ireland’s third try. Photo: Getty Images
Jacob Stockdale touches down Ireland’s third try. Photo: Getty Images
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

Shortly before the final whistle in Twickenham yesterday you could have been forgiven for thinking that the falling snow was in fact a shower of ticker tape, a salute to the new Grand Slam champions. The scoreline was likely to be amended - and indeed it was - but the game was done.

At half-time with their team trailing 5-21 many of the England fans had resigned themselves to a bad finish to an unexpectedly poor season. So by the time Jonny May got over in the corner they were already acknowledging the rarity of what had happened here. Before yesterday, only five teams had come to Twickenham looking for closure on a Grand Slam. And only one - France in 1982 - had been successful. That now reads six and two.

A crowd of 82,062, some of them having trudged up from Cheltenham, and many more of them having made their way over yesterday morning, witnessed a decent game of rugby where Ireland were always the better side. And always looked like they knew it.

It takes something to go to this part of the world and wipe out a team who up until very recently reckoned they were almost on a par with the All Blacks. And it takes a bit more to win in circumstances where the team with vastly inferior resources, across the board, can look so assured. That is Joe Schmidt's great achievement with this squad: they have ridden their luck and coped with injuries and never looked like they didn't believe it would work out in the end.

So when Peter O'Mahony was binned in the first half and England took full advantage with a try for Elliot Daly, there was no panic. And when England badly mismanaged the period in which O'Mahony was off, it was hard to see how the away side could be overtaken.

Even when Daly got a second try for England in the second half, five minutes after Ireland had stretched out to 24-5 with a Conor Murray penalty - he will tell you he's 100 per cent off tee in this tournament - there was no sign of panic.

Leaders? The spine of their side, which has remained almost untouched through the campaign, was outstanding, starting with Rob Kearney at fullback and running through to CJ Stander at number eight. Around that quintet you could not find a player who didn't front up physically, or not deliver on the minutiae of his role. It wasn't sexy, but it was comprehensive and single-minded. And the defensive resolve was massive.

In the circumstances a good start carried even more importance for Ireland given where each team was coming from. England were a bit fragile after what had happened them in Murrayfield and Paris, while Ireland, as their captain Rory Best conceded in the run-up, were nervous about the scale of the task. Nervous and excited.

In any case it all manifested itself in poor discipline from the home team. They had conceded only one penalty fewer than Ireland by the break (that margin was the same at the finish) but that was largely down to a back-pedalling run in the second quarter where Ireland ran up four in a row with O'Mahony paying the price as they tried to keep England out.

Five times in that first half England went to touch with penalties that could have got them on the board. By the time they did get there, on 32 minutes, Ireland already were 14-0 in front. And even with Daly's touchdown Ireland would score again for a 21-5 lead at the turnover.

Gary Ringrose celebrates his try, the first of the game. Photo: Sportsfile
Gary Ringrose celebrates his try, the first of the game. Photo: Sportsfile

The first 14 points came in instalments on six and 24 minutes. For the first Garry Ringrose, whose stepping always gained him a metre or two, got his hand to a ball that ran loose in England's in-goal after Anthony Watson had spilled a Johnny Sexton garryowen under pressure from Kearney.

For the second, CJ Stander scored off the foot of the post after a classic Joe Schmidt strike play: O'Mahony delivered very well off a four man lineout; they ran a wrap in midfield with Bundee Aki taking a blindside pop from Tadhg Furlong, and picking up Stander in support.

And the third? Would you believe it was the try-scoring machine that is Jacob Stockwell. Interestingly, his seventh try of the campaign - 11 in nine Tests - a Six Nations record, was facilitated by what appeared to be an extended in-goal area, putting it into the same general dimension as Murrayfield, which is enormous.

Credit to Stockdale, he did well not to knock it on as he chased the spillage from another aerial contest that had gone Ireland's way. So with Ireland 100 per cent out of touch - the lineout quality wasn't always first class - and at the scrum, the only real concern was the health of Johnny Sexton.

He went off for a HIA six minutes before the break, and while he returned for the second half, he clearly had an issue with goal-kicking, needing Murray to nail that shot on the hour mark. By then, however, there were players all over the field putting their hands up looking for work. Tadhg Furlong was man of the match bur frequently it was Iain Henderson and Dan Leavy competing to get their hands highest - they made 15 and 16 tackles respectively. They were immense.

George Kruis of England wins a lineout ahead of Devin Toner of Ireland. Photo: Sportsfile
George Kruis of England wins a lineout ahead of Devin Toner of Ireland. Photo: Sportsfile

So too was Aki, who was fortunate to concede only a penalty for a high shot on Daly in the second half, and his departure - he looked in a heap - robbed Ireland of a go-to man in the gain-line battle. It finished with Kieran Marmion on the wing as the injury toll slowed Ireland to a canter, but even then they didn't lose composure. Keeping England out until time added on was an achievement in itself. It's rarely you see players congratulating each other after a try has just been conceded, but was the scene as Jonny May scored out wide on 83 minutes.

The job was done. It was a typically resolute finish to a roller-coaster campaign. They will take a little time out to celebrate, and to recover.

England: A Watson (M Brown 33); J May, J Joseph (G Ford 56), B Te'o, E Daly; O Farrell, R Wigglesworth (D Care 68); M Vunipola (J Marler 53), D Hartley (capt) (J George 58), K Sinckler (D Cole 53), M Itoje, G Kruis, C Robshaw, S Simmonds (D Armand 67), J Haskell.

Ireland: R Kearney; K Earls (K Marmion 74), G Ringrose, B Aki (J Larmour 56), J Stockdale; J Sexton (J Carbery HIA 34-40; 67), C Murray; C Healy (J McGrath 51), R Best (S Cronin 65), T Furlong (A Porter 64), J Ryan (D Toner 66), I Henderson, P O'Mahony (yc 29-39; J Murphy 74)), CJ Stander, D Leavy.

Referee: A Gardner (Australia)

England - Daly 2 tries, May try

Ireland - Ringrose, Stander, Stockdale try each; Murray pen; Sexton 2 cons; Carbery con

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