Friday 15 February 2019

Off-colour Ireland forced to raise white flag

Ireland 20 England 32

Henry Slade of England dives over to score his side’s third try despite the tackle of Garry Ringrose. Photo: Sportsfile
Henry Slade of England dives over to score his side’s third try despite the tackle of Garry Ringrose. Photo: Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

No need for an extra carry-on bag for the Grand Slam then.

It remains to be seen what shape Ireland are in going to the World Cup in Japan, but that's one title they won't have to check in before boarding. And in a campaign as compressed as the Six Nations, the idea of overhauling England to at least retain the Championship will be very long odds.

England's Jonny May grapples with Ireland's Robbie Henshaw. Photo: PA
England's Jonny May grapples with Ireland's Robbie Henshaw. Photo: PA

Up until the last quarter, when England opened up a handy lead, this was a cracking Test match. In perfect weather and on a sound surface, it had everything going for it: the brutality England coach Eddie Jones had predicted plus so much more. His side were very direct, hugely energetic and played with a level of accuracy that you expect from teams in the middle of a successful run. Maybe that's what this is developing into, for they got so much right.

Their kicking game from both Ben Youngs and Owen Farrell was first class, and with Ireland defending sometimes without two dedicated men in the backfield, Robbie Henshaw - whose selection at 15 had been a major talking point - was exposed. Other key men struggled: CJ Stander got little traction, as did most of Ireland's carriers - and Conor Murray had an ordinary game. Murray is the best in his position in the world and the team have come to rely on it. When that slips against a side in England's mood, it's an issue.

And boy were England in the mood. From man of the match Mako Vunipola to the hugely talented Elliot Daly at full-back, they had everyone at just the right pitch. So what had been billed as a one-score game turned into a rout. Ireland were under pressure everywhere. No matter where you looked there were players getting the ball away with a millisecond to spare. Or not.

Part of England's plan was to take the space in the lineout and with it some space in the heads of the Ireland forwards. Referees are not always responsive to having this pointed out to them. When England tried it on for the third time they had already conceded a free-kick, and referee Jerome Garces was warning them the next cab off that particular rank would be impounded. It had served its purpose. Move on.

England's Owen Farrell kicks at goal. Photo: PA
England's Owen Farrell kicks at goal. Photo: PA

They continued with the aerial bombardment of Keith Earls, however. Never has the Munster man stood under so many high balls coming at him on so many different flight paths. He coped well but it was one more job for Ireland to have to do.

If it pinned Ireland down then it was a risky business for England too. Tom Curry was yellow-carded on 13 minutes for flattening Earls late - Ireland couldn't score when he was off - and Garces got it horribly wrong in leaving Maro Itoje on the field five minutes later, after he had taken Earls out with not even a passing reference to where the ball was at the time. Garces had a good game, but he'll review that one and wince.

By then, England had already got the start they wanted: a first-class flyer. With 1.32 on the clock Manu Tuilagi had carried twice, Billy Vunipola once, and the momentum generated was massive. They finished off some great rugby with a lovely connection between Farrell, Daly and the try-scorer Jonny May. What a start.

Farrell nailed the conversion from the touchline and it took the home team 11 minutes to respond, through a Sexton penalty. By then, all concerned were clear on England's intent and accuracy. Ireland did succeed in turning things around with a Cian Healy try from close range on 25 minutes, but five minutes later Daly scored after Jacob Stockdale was nailed in the in-goal area by the excellent Jack Nowell.

Ireland's Conor Murray launches a kick. Photo: Reuters
Ireland's Conor Murray launches a kick. Photo: Reuters

Ominous stuff, and it could have been worse for Ireland at the break when Mako Vunipola had a try claim referred. It was a huge moment, and had it got the thumbs up would likely have sent England in 21-10 ahead. Playing as well as they were it would have put Ireland in very deep water. There was a case for giving the try and a case for penalising Vunipola for a double movement that had no momentum. In the event the refereeing team - and Garces was more than happy to open this one up - came down somewhere in the middle. Ireland were spared the concession of the try but Farrell went back for the kick - England had been on a penalty advantage - and took three points with a fine kick.

Not ideal from an England point of view, but when fed through the prism of pre-match hopes it was good enough: seven points clear and playing the sort of rugby they were doing by rote when Eddie Jones had got the ball rolling in 2016.

As for Ireland, they needed to make a change. Sean O'Brien was the obvious option to give them an extra carrying dimension for they had struggled there, but that would come much later.

When England opened the second half they looked like they could pin Ireland back when they wanted, and then trust their defence. They weren't trying to build phases - they had scored two tries in the first 40 despite going past five phases only five times. Tuilagi and Henry Slade were not so much a partnership as two players operating alongside each other. Yet operating very well.

England's Henry Slade challenges Ireland's Josh van der Flier. Photo: Reuters
England's Henry Slade challenges Ireland's Josh van der Flier. Photo: Reuters

For all their discipline - remarkably they had conceded just one penalty - Ireland badly needed a break, and they got it with a perfect spot tackle from Garry Ringrose on Farrell. Sexton scooped the ball up and should have fed Stockdale outside him but kicked long instead. The sequence at least offered up another penalty against Kyle Sinckler, which Sexton goaled to leave the score 17-13 to England. Game on again.

But the precision of England's direct game hadn't gone away. On 66 minutes, from a scrum around halfway, two cut out passes directly off the base put May free down the left wing. Slade shouted for the kick ahead; May obliged; Slade won the race with metres to spare. It was referred upstairs given that May and Slade were pretty much level when the wing had pulled the trigger. The try was given and the game was as good as done.

Confirmation came a few minutes later when Ireland again found themselves buried behind the gain line for the concession of a penalty for holding on. From just inside the halfway line, Farrell dropped it over the bar with about six inches to spare.

And it would get better for them. With Ireland now chasing from a long way back, and when trying to run from their 22, Slade picked off a pass from Sexton. It was brilliant skill from the Exeter man, in the first place not to knock it on, and in the second to keep control of the ball as he got back to his feet and slid over to score.

Apart from a John Cooney try with a couple of minutes left, and another couple of harum-scarum moments from the home team who were on very dodgy ground, that was that.

A good hiding.

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