Sunday 18 March 2018

Six Nations: Power and pressure tells in bruising endgame

England 21 Ireland 10

England’s Dan Cole is brought down by Conor Murray and Donnacha Ryan during yesterday’s Six Nations match at Twickenham. Photo: Paul Gilham
England’s Dan Cole is brought down by Conor Murray and Donnacha Ryan during yesterday’s Six Nations match at Twickenham. Photo: Paul Gilham
Robbie Henshaw is stopped short of the try line. Photo: Getty
England's wing Mike Brown scores a try. Photo: Getty
Jack Nowell of England is tackled by Conor Murray. Photo: Getty
England's flanker James Haskell (C) is shown a yellow card and sent to the sin-bin. Photo: Getty
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

Many of the hoardings around the pitch at Twickenham still bear the message 'CarryThemHome'. A hangover from the World Cup, you'd have thought they would have got out the paint can and erased any sign of a campaign that still causes nightmares around these parts. In the interim, new coach Eddie Jones has not been slow to talk up his team, and talk down his opponents, as part of a whole new era.

After the 132nd meeting between the teams, the Australian was happy that his team had taken another step along the way. They were more athletic in possession, and more aggressive in defence where their line speed kept Ireland under pressure. And had they been more efficient in a hugely lopsided first half, where their territory and possession stats were off the charts, then Ireland would not have been able to spread a bit of panic around Twickenham early in the second half by slipping into an unlikely lead.

"The structure of our attack was excellent, but the finishing wasn't," Jones said afterwards. "But that will come. If we had come off the field after scoring 30-10, we'd be saying that was one of the most impressive performances of all time."

For Ireland to keep that lead, however, the away team would have needed more things going their way. Like the lineout, where three losses from 11 throws was costly. England were 100 per cent there. It was a credit to Joe Schmidt's side that they managed to dominate the second half, for in the first period they had to make a massive 81 tackles - excluding those they missed - while England were hardly pushed in completing 37.

Thanks to yellow cards for James Haskell and replacement Danny Care, Ireland enjoyed 20 in the second half with superior numbers, but by the time the Care decision came, they were already struggling. They might have had England down to 13 men in the same sequence when Mike Brown was fairly reckless with his boot in trying to separate Conor Murray from the ball. Jones maintained that Murray was fair game as the ball was on the ground, and evidently referee Romain Poite agreed.

So if you don't get those breaks from officialdom and you're struggling in a few other areas, then it's an uphill climb. In the first quarter, for example, Johnny Sexton - who had an excellent game - was called back for contact between Robbie Henshaw and Owen Farrell in what looked like a fair second man play. The Ireland outhalf was in the clear at the time.

Then in the second half, Josh van der Flier - who, like the other starting debutant Stuart McCloskey, grew into the game after a slow start - was knocked back on a referral upstairs when in all probability he grounded the ball. There was no issue with Henshaw's effort a few minutes earlier, when he lost the ball over the line, but Van der Flier's attempt - it had started with great work by another debutant, replacement Ultan Dillane - would have put England under real pressure for the last six minutes, and with a man in the bin.

Instead, England played the game out in the Ireland half, where they had spent so little time after the break. But, unlike the first 40, their finishing was very good. Two tries in five minutes all but buried Ireland, both of them ending with healthy numbers of attackers to spare for England as they dragged Ireland's defence all over the place.

First, Anthony Watson got over in the left corner, followed by Mike Brown on the other side, allowing Farrell to put England 21-10 clear with 17 minutes to play. They would spend most of that period back in their own half as Ireland, with Sexton dangerous every time he got the ball.

"There was probably a bit of fatigue from the first half, but to let the get ahead after we had taken the lead was disappointing," Schmidt said. "You had two teams that were relatively evenly matched."

A scoreline of 6-3 at half-time - split between Farrell and Sexton - was hard to fathom. Keen to shift the trend in the third quarter, Ireland twice passed up kickable penalties in favour of going to touch. The second was after Haskell had been binned for flooring Murray with a high tackle.

The Ireland scrumhalf wasn't long back on his feet when he was burrowing his way over for a try off a ruck close-in. Sexton's conversion put Ireland 10-6 ahead, but they couldn't build on it with a lineout that was beginning to creak. England exploited the spacing effectively at that phase, but you expected Ireland to use more decoys to protect their own ball.

It was a big factor in not being able to build more momentum, for off phase play typically Ireland would be struggling against the speed of the white defensive line. While that will have pleased Eddie Jones greatly, his opposite number now has a group who are fairly knocked around after three rounds of the Championship and with only a point to show for it.

At least they won't have to travel again. Moreover, the three new caps all showed that they can - or soon will be - able to compete at this level, and Dillane's carrying was really effective. Van der Flier and McCloskey understandably were slow to get to the pace of the game initially, but it was more costly for Ireland that Murray too took time to find his range - he let loose with two poor box-kicks early on which were costly. Andrew Trimble, too, was well off the pace required.

In the circumstance then, it could have been better, and it could have been a lot worse. Eddie Jones may well feel the say way.

The difference is that his team are three from three and chasing a title. Ireland are looking to get a foothold in mid-table, which is where most of us expected them to be.

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