From an Irish supporter’s perspective, there’s a unique satisfaction to be taken from denying England a Grand Slam, especially on the final day of the Championship. Much like in 2011, Ireland rebounded from a dismal loss to Wales and played with an intensity that a Grand Slam-chasing England side couldn’t live with for large parts of the game. The visitors, without disintegrating completely, cracked badly enough to allow Ireland to take control for the majority of the 80 minutes.
Coming Apart At The Seams
Ireland were victorious for several reasons, but the starting point was the Munster-like ferocity of their rucking. They simply refused to work with slow ball (as they had done in Cardiff), and watching their clear outs on television was enough to make your fillings rattle:
It wasn’t just on their own ball that Ireland dominated on the ground; they gave England no clean possession to work with, and it made their scrum-halves look pedestrian:
Ben Young’s performances can vary wildly; look back over his career and you’ll see that he can mix the sublime with the horrendous. In November, he gave a sniping masterclass against South Africa, and going as far back as 2010, he was taking Australian teams apart around the fringes. His woeful display at the end of the 2011 Six Nations (which triggered a vein of bad form that continued all the way into the following year) was closer to what he produced on Saturday. The ball wasn’t put on a plate for him, and he was powerless to influence the course of events that were unfolding in front of him as a result.
Danny Care wasn’t much better when he came on (that penalty for slapping the ball out of Luke McGrath’s hand could see him out of international contention for some time), and the knock-on effect of England’s lack of control or impetus at the base of the ruck was that George Ford and Owen Farrell couldn’t get their back line out of first gear.
The deciding factor in this game was England’s surprising toothlessness in the lineout, an area where they were expected to cause Ireland considerable discomfort. There was very little in the way of competition from them on Ireland’s throw, which is highly counter-intuitive when you look at the height and athletic aerial ability of Joe Launchbury, Courtney Lawes and Maro Itoje (not to mention James Haskell being a decent lineout forward), and also Ireland’s recent travails out of touch:
The above is only one example of how England stood off Ireland at lineout-time all game. Iain Henderson showed great dynamism to power through for his try, but it came off the back of a drive that was met with turnstile counter-mauling from a team that are supposed to have a strong, technically-proficient defensive maul:
Contrary to what Eddie Jones believes, England’s inability to impose themselves on Ireland’s lineout can’t be blamed entirely on Peter O’Mahony’s late inclusion in Ireland’s starting XV; it’s symptomatic of something deeper, a failure to perform in key facets of play on a big day. They even struggled on their own throw, mainly due to O’Mahony’s presence, and their biggest strength being turned into a weakness went a long way towards them faltering under pressure:
On top of Ireland’s sterling effort up front, their willingness to move the ball wide in difficult conditions was a welcome surprise. The clever variations on their established patterns and loop plays were well-executed, and they found more space in the wider channels against England than any other team have managed since Paul Gustard took charge of their defence:
Ireland’s ability to create space out wide can be attributed to a few different things (Kieran Marmion’s zippy passing, Johnny Sexton’s decision-making and distribution, Garry Ringrose’s incisiveness, Jared Payne’s playmaking at second- or third-receiver), but they generated crucial front foot ball due to their primary ball carriers, Seán O’Brien and CJ Stander, being able to make yards after contact with more ease than they did in the previous four games:
All That Glitters Is Not Gold
A team doesn’t win 18 Tests in a row or reach second in the world rankings without being exceptional, and while there’s no doubting the progress that England have made under Jones, they were made to look quite ordinary by Ireland’s defensive line speed and intensity. When Courtney Lawes and Anthony Watson, two players who have high skill levels by international standards, made fundamental errors like these, it was obvious that England weren’t at the right pitch mentally:
Ireland outperformed their opposite numbers across the park, with what looked like a gulf in quality in some cases. Rory Best hit top form in stark contrast to Dylan Hartley, who was anonymous; Tadhg Furlong and CJ Stander made Dan Cole and Billy Vunipola look like amateurs; Donnacha Ryan spent all of his time on the field manhandling English forwards; Johnny Sexton demonstrated his world class virtues (despite being subject to dangerous, late tackles) whereas George Ford faded out of the game badly; and Garry Ringrose put a huge dent in Jonathan Joseph’s Lions aspirations. Kieran Marmion, too, looked a couple of levels above the vastly-experienced Ben Youngs in terms of class and composure.
How else do you explain England going from putting over 60 points on Scotland to being out-thought and outmuscled to such an extent by Ireland? Joe Schmidt’s team have had their own problems managing expectations this year, but England choked on the big stage. It might be in his team’s best interests for Jones to stop talking about World Cup finals and, like Schmidt, focus on developing second-half strategies that work around the limitations of his talented (if not perfect) side when Plan A doesn’t work.
“Oh, Charlie, Where Do We Go From Here?”
Ireland have plenty of soul-searching to do. It’s hard to judge how good they actually are after their ups and downs in recent weeks. Their intensity and skill levels on Saturday were on par with their excellence in Chicago, but it shouldn’t have taken them five games to reach a level of performance that would have blown every other team in the tournament out of the water.
The biggest positive to be taken from the tournament for them was the displays of their wider squad members, especially Kieran Marmion, who deserves more than five-minute cameos off the bench going forward. When Jamie Heaslip, one of Ireland’s most important players during the last two RWC cycles, was withdrawn, they were still able to beat a top-ranked side; England, however, struggled in the first three rounds of this tournament without Billy Vunipola.
Although finishing the Championship with two wins from five can’t be seen as anything but a failure by a group of players who had a genuine chance of winning a Grand Slam, Ireland did end on a high, and Niall Scannell, John Ryan, Dan Leavy, Luke McGrath, and Andrew Conway all gained valuable experience, and the upcoming June Series will give Ireland further opportunities to strengthen their depth ahead of 2019.