Below-par Ireland suffer defeat to England with blunt attack a major concern
England 21 Ireland 13
IN THE end, Ireland leave Twickenham with the sense that things could have been a lot worse.
To lose by eight points after starting with what Shane Horgan described as the worst half of rugby in Joe Schmidt’s time in charge was a relief. Their second-half was a lot better, but things got chaotic due to injury in the last 20 minutes which saw the visitors finish the game with three tighthead props on the pitch.
England needed to win here given the toughness of their pool and their status as hosts, while Ireland have more time to grow into the World Cup and their need wasn’t as great. There is time to fix what’s wrong, but there is a lot to mend.
Still, their lack of attacking impetus is a real concern, as was their defensive fragility when England went wide.
It didn’t help that Conor Murray was forced off after suffering a head injury when tackling Joe Marler 16 minutes in, but at least the injury list didn’t get much worse with cramp affecting Simon Zebo and Sexton.
The scrum functioned well and the lineout, one costly loss apart, was solid, but again Ireland were second best at the breakdown and missed too many tackles.
Schmidt’s side got off the worst possible start, with England taking ownership of the ball in the early stages and barely relinquishing control for 20 minutes.
The World Cup hosts were celebrating within four minutes of kick-off, working through a host of phases before a slick cut-out pass from Ben Youngs found Jonny May one on one with Bowe and the winger brushed off a terrible attempted tackle from his marker, beat Zebo and scored.
It was Bowe’s second miss in the series of phases and the beginning of a nightmare afternoon for the Ulster winger.
George Ford converted and, although Sexton pulled a penalty back after being tackled in the air by May, England continued to dominate and Ireland were under their posts again 10 minutes later.
This time, it was a superb piece of individual brilliance from Anthony Watson who climbed above Zebo to take Ford’s cross-kick and touch down.
Ford missed the conversion as Ireland attempted to get into the game, but their attacking intensity was off and their accuracy was well below expected levels.
It was all summed up when they set up a maul in midfield, before Eoin Reddan box-kicked from the edge of the England ’22. The hosts dealt with it in their sleep.
Reddan was on after Ireland had lost Murray to a suspected concussion, with the scrum-half lying prone for a prolonged period before being able to walk off the field.
Things looked like they had gotten worse when May thought he had scored again, but Tom Youngs’ final pass was forward and Nigel Owens called a halt just before the conversion was taken to check with the television match official.
It was a stroke of luck that seemed to fuel some sort of a response from Ireland, but their good work was undone by poor handling and the one time they got within real striking distance after some great work from Dave Kearney, Geoff Parling picked off Rory Best’s throw ahead of Devin Toner.
They might have gotten in at the death but Robbie Henshaw’s pass was behind Kearney and England escaped. A nine point lead was the least they deserved.
Ford extended that lead six minutes after the restart, with Reddan knocking on a lineout tap down from O’Connell and Joe Marler winning a scrum penalty off Mike Ross.
Like Sexton before him, he needed the cross-bar to get it over, but Ireland responded with their bet piece of attacking play of the day freeing Kearney down the left but Zebo and Heaslip over-elaborated when the ball went the other way and the chance was missed.
England had strayed offside to give Sexton a handy chance to narrow the gap, before a break up the left flank after a superb Jamie Heaslip turnover led to Ireland’s try.
Robbie Henshaw opted to kick when he might have held on to it, but it forced May into kicking to touch to give Ireland a 5m lineout. Heaslip peeled off the maul and went close, before O’Connell picked and drove over.
It was shades of Murrayfield and suddenly Ireland were within two points as Sexton converted.
Back came England, but they failed to protect their ball in a ruck and it spilled out to Payne who spotted the opportunity and passed to Henshaw, he raced clear but his pass to Zebo was forward. It was a real chance lost.
Bolstered by the Vunipola brothers off the bench, the home side regained their supremacy but their first-half slickness wasn’t there and some fine defence from Heaslip and a brilliant Sexton rip on Tom Wood.
They kept the pressure on as both teams emptied their bench and after a sustained period of pressure and thought they’d scored again after another scintillating break from May was halted by Donnacha Ryan. Billy Vunipola butchered an overlap before Richard Wigglesworth touched down.
Owens again went to the TMO who spotted an illegal transfer from Chris Robshaw to Wood and Ireland escaped.
At this stage, Chris Henry was on the wing after Zebo went off with cramp and a Peter O’Mahony offside allowed Owen Farrell extend England’s lead and he put it beyond doubt with a final effort after Kearney held on on the ground.
ENGLAND -- Mike Brown; Anthony Watson, Jonathan Joseph, Brad Barritt (Sam Burgess 59), Jonny May; George Ford (Owen Farrell 59), Ben Youngs (Richard Wigglesworth 62); Joe Marler (Mako Vunipola 55), Tom Youngs, Dan Cole (Kieran Brookes 62); Geoff Parling (Joe Launchbury 13-19, ), Courtney Lawes; Tom Wood, Chris Robshaw (capt), Ben Morgan (B Vunipola 56).
IRELAND – Simon Zebo (Tadhg Furlong 69); Tommy Bowe, Jared Payne, Robbie Henshaw (Darren Cave 59), Dave Kearney (Ian Madigan 59); Johnny Sexton (Dave Kearney 65), Conor Murray; Jack McGrath (Mike Ross 70), Rory Best (Richardt Strauss 61), Mike Ross (Nathan White); Devin Toner, Paul O’Connell (capt) (Donnacha Ryan 66); Peter O’Mahony, Sean O’Brien (Chris Henry 61), Jamie Heaslip.
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)