They say that one loss doesn’t make a bad team, but if there is a repeat of the performance that Ireland produced on Saturday evening, then the doubts over how good a side they really are will become genuine. That may sound harsh when they were well in the contest for more than 65 minutes, but they buckled badly in the closing stages of the game, and in many ways, it was reminiscent of their loss to Wales in the Principality Stadium two years ago.
The hosts were competitive for the majority of the Test on Saturday, but were still outclassed in every phase of play, and in the final minutes they cracked under pressure and made uncharacteristic mistakes that essentially handed the win to their opponents. Much has been made of the potential forward pass and offside offence leading up to Henry Slade’s first try (Cian Healy’s score could also have been ruled out), and even though it was a major turning point, you got the feeling from early on that Ireland were never going to win this game. They were completely outplayed, and today was probably the most painful video review session that this group of players have experienced under Joe Schmidt.
If you don’t win collisions in rugby, it’s almost impossible to win the game, and the cold reality is that Ireland were beaten up in the close-quarters exchanges by England on Saturday evening. Jamie George, Kyle Sinckler, Maro Itoje, the Vunipola brothers and Manu Tuilagi all charged on to the ball at pace and smashed over the gain line at will more often than not:
Ireland lost the opening collisions, and as we have seen with them in the past, they rarely recover when that happens. There were instances where they met the English forwards behind the gain line, and they weren’t too far away from England in terms of intensity, but they spent long periods defending wave after wave of attack without applying pressure at the breakdown, and it was only a matter of time before they started putting in soak tackles.
The knock-on effect of this was that it created acres of space out wide, and England’s back line were more skillful and incisive and they were better at exploiting space in the 15-metre channel when it appeared:
Henry Slade, Jonny May, Jack Nowell and Elliot Daly are all game-changers who are difficult to contain to begin with, and giving them any sort of freedom was asking for trouble.
Can’t Get Through Them, Can’t Get Around Them
Ireland’s attacking play was ineffective on Saturday, and there were several reasons why. Cian Healy, Tadhg Furlong, James Ryan and CJ Stander all had some strong runs, but nothing like what we have come to expect from Ireland’s go-to ball-carriers. Seán O’Brien punched a few holes when he was introduced, but overall, Ireland’s pack were caught behind the gain line regularly:
They did manage rare spells of concerted pressure, but every time that they built up a head of steam with their forward carries, the English pack would put hands in the ruck to slow their ball down:
There’s an argument to be made that Jérôme Garcès should have been stricter with his officiating of this facet of the game, but if Ireland had been more ruthless and aggressive with their clearing out, the English forwards would have been more inclined to keep their hands to themselves. This isn’t the first time that this has happened to Ireland recently; New Zealand employed the same tactics in November of 2016 and Scotland did the same the following spring, but if the referee isn’t going to police the breakdown properly, you have to take matters into your own hands.
Moving the ball wide was also a source of consternation for Ireland; the English defence piled pressure on their 10-12-13 axis, forcing the ball-carrier to run cross-field:
Lateral running is a bugbear of coaches because as soon as one player does it, the running angles of everyone else get messed up. The Irish forwards were guilty of it as well, and with Bundee Aki in particular being swarmed by the English defence, Ireland had to rely on pirouettes from Garry Ringrose to get moving forward, which were few and far between.
Besides nullifying Ireland with ball in hand, England also accounted for their tactical kicking, and this was one of those games where the visitors had the measure of Ireland in everything that they tried to do. When they put the ball through the hands, the English wingers were up in the defensive line to close down the space, and when they kicked in behind, the English wingers had dropped back.
Is that good video analysis in the build-up from England, or are Ireland predictable? The answer is a combination of both, and for me, it brought to mind the Ireland v France Six Nations game from four years ago. Johnny Sexton put on a tactical kicking masterclass on the day, but the below example was the highlight:
The kick from Sexton was superb, but the amount of thinking that went into the lead-up is what makes it stand out in the memory. Ireland had a pod of forwards set up to pass out the back door to Sexton who was lurking in behind while sliding across, and because this is the way that they normally aligned themselves when passing wide, Teddy Thomas moved up into the defensive line, leaving grass in behind for Sexton to take advantage of. It’s a lot of misdirection for the sake of one kick, but Ireland need to start looking at the pictures that they present to the opposition and switch them around them in order to buy themselves more time and space on the ball and more room in the backfield to kick into.
Ireland’s remaining opponents in this tournament will have watched what transpired on Saturday evening in the Aviva Stadium to try and figure out what they’re going to do and when they’re going to do it, so it’s in their best interests to vary the patterns they use when shaping to kick and when they’re shaping to run. They couldn’t get a foothold deep in the English half because they were easily read, and dominating possession and territory is vital to the game plan that they are currently using.
“Don’t It Always Seem To Go, That You Don’t Know What You’ve Got ‘Til It’s Gone”
Elliot Daly’s first try was a result of a comedy of errors from Jacob Stockdale (and it’s worth remembering that Jonny May made a similar mistake in his own 22), but Ireland’s covering of the backfield was poor in general. In the aftermath, Schmidt claimed that he thought Robbie Henshaw did a good job in that area, but he was hardly going to slate his own player in front of the media. Henshaw was obviously targeted by England, and given that he hadn’t started a game at full-back in nearly three years, it shouldn’t have been a surprise that he struggled in the air and got caught out positionally:
Henshaw wasn’t the only Irish back whose positioning was below par; Keith Earls was the subject of aerial bombardment too, and he didn’t fare any better:
This was on top of the cheap shots he received from Tom Curry and Maro Itoje, and considering that he was also pressurised with kicks in behind by New Zealand three months ago, it seems that he has been identified as a weakness in this Ireland team. It’s strange to think that Ireland are no longer a dominant force aerially when you remember that no more than four years ago, they had the likes of Andrew Trimble, Tommy Bowe and Simon Zebo excelling under the high ball, but it’s a cause for concern nonetheless.
Rob Kearney’s detractors are quick to overlook the quality of his covering of the backfield and aerial prowess, which is understandable. They are mundane aspects of full-back play that only get noticed when they go wrong, but there was a reason that Kearney wasn’t picked on Saturday. He’s short on match fitness and in his most recent outing against the Scarlets on the Friday before last, he put in what was a dreadful performance by his own standards. Throwing him in the deep end against England could have worked out or it could have been disastrous; the Leinster stalwart has bounced back from off days before but it was a risk that Schmidt wasn’t willing to take.
Ireland do have other options at full-back, but who’s to say that any of them would have coped better than Henshaw? Jordan Larmour hasn’t convinced in his starts at 15, Joey Carbery has been playing mainly at 10 this season for Munster, Mike Haley is uncapped at Test level, Andrew Conway is a winger by trade (and is carrying a knock), Will Addison is playing at outside centre most weeks, Zebo is out of Schmidt’s plans since moving to France and the Irish head coach just doesn’t like Tiernan O’Halloran. It’s not as straightforward when you look at it that way, but with Kearney’s proven ability to rebound, it’s likely that he will start against Scotland.
The Long Road Ahead
It is true that Ireland’s problems against England are all fixable, but whether or not that can be done in time to salvage something from this Championship remains to be seen. There are changes that Schmidt can make in certain positions to alter Ireland’s style of play (O’Brien is a possibility to start at 7 after impressing off the bench against England and Dan Leavy could come into the matchday squad to provide another carrying weapon), but his hand will be forced by injury in other places.
If Devin Toner’s ankle injury is serious, it’s going to be a massive blow in a position where Ireland have already lost two talented operators for at least half of this tournament, and CJ Stander is going to leave a huge void that Jack Conan might not be able to fill. There tends to be a mass hysteria whenever Ireland lose a game these days, but the outlook is definitely bleak at present. Schmidt is going to have to show his worth to guide his squad through the remainder of what will be a testing couple of weeks.