Yesterday was a classic example of Murphy’s Law for Ireland. Everything that could have gone wrong did go wrong; their pack were battered, their half-packs underperformed, their attack was limited (partly by aggressive defensive line speed and partly by their midfield personnel), their backfield cover was dreadful, and across the board, their error count was through the roof. This is the first real test of Andy Farrell’s credentials as a head coach, and how Ireland bounce back from this chastening defeat will be telling.
Farrell doesn’t place as much of an emphasis on video analysis as his predecessor, but it would be foolish of him not to review Ireland’s shortcomings in this match in detail because there is plenty to ponder. Nothing is guaranteed in sport, and while a loss to Italy in Round 4 is unlikely, Ireland have a mountain to climb with regards to self-reflection and improvement if they are to be competitive against France.
Although rugby matches are won and lost up front, Ireland’s failings in this game started with their dire backfield coverage. In a carbon copy of England’s second try in the Aviva Stadium last year, an awkward kick was put in behind the front line of the Irish defence, which they made a mess of dealing with:
Ireland got caught out here because their defence was so quick to rush off the mark and their wingers were up flat. Normally, when a team makes this costly a blunder, they ensure that it doesn’t happen again by adjusting what they are doing, but when England repeated this tactic, it produced the same result:
The vexing part of this is that Ireland were aware of the fact that England had multiple kicking options in their back line, as they saw firsthand last year the damage that the likes of George Ford, Owen Farrell, Jonny May and Elliot Daly can do when they elect to put boot to ball.
The two tries above were the most glaring instances of Ireland struggling with England’s kicking prowess, but they were second-best in the aerial contests throughout the game:
Jordan Larmour is still learning his trade at full-back, but Jacob Stockdale has been underperforming for over a year now, and it’s starting to look like some time away from the first team could be the best thing for him. Keith Earls and Andrew Conway are both in better form, and for some players, not having the pressure of Test rugby on their minds allows them to get back in the groove.
The old adage of ‘if you don’t win the collisions, you don’t win the game’ is so well-worn because it’s true. As complex a sport as it can be, rugby can usually be boiled down to one simple question: who came out on top in the physical stakes? Even the All Blacks coaches have recognised the need for brawn to complement their high skill levels, and to put it bluntly, Ireland were beaten out the gate yet again by an English team who displayed a greater hunger to dominate the collisions:
It is true that Jaco Peyper didn’t referee the offside line when Ireland were in possession, and he definitely let England away with foul play off the ball, but refereeing inconsistencies are part and parcel of the game, and Ireland were too concerned with drawing the South African official’s attention towards English offences, when they should have been focusing on the things that were in their control, like getting their intensity in contact at the right pitch.
Iain Henderson’s withdrawal from the game was a blow to Ireland’s ball-carrying options, but having Devin Toner in the starting pack didn’t shore up their lineout as you would expect:
Ireland are heavily reliant on the lineout as a launch pad for their attacks, and when they couldn’t rely on this set-piece when opportunities did arise in the second half, it deflated Ireland completely.
The scrums were relatively even up until the replacement props came on, with Ireland winning a penalty in this area at one point, but Ellis Genge’s illegal boring in on Andrew Porter gave his side an unfair advantage that only added to Ireland’s problems:
Peyper subsequently penalised the Leicester loosehead for his indiscretions, but the penalty that England earned in the example above was the death knell of Ireland’s fightback.
Mike Catt received a lot of plaudits for the variety to Ireland’s attack against Wales, and even though his team’s inability to create anything with ball in hand can be largely attributed to England’s forward dominance, they looked hesitant and stilted when they did manage to string phases together in the few minutes before half-time:
I think that Garry Ringrose was badly missed by Ireland in terms of variation in attack. Having two big, physical centres wear down the opposition with strong carries is great when your pack are already going for forward because it pays dividends later on in the match, but when you don’t have at least parity up front, they can limit your range in attack:
This isn’t a snipe at Robbie Henshaw (who performed admirably); Ringrose was injured anyway, and when Ireland lost to England last year, he wasn’t exactly influential, but games like this are a stark reminder of the balance he provides to Ireland’s midfield. It was noticeable that they played with more width when Johnny Sexton shifted out to 12, giving Ireland an extra pair of hands in the centre, and they started to find space in the 15-metre channel.
However, they were guilty of handling errors when they did get into good field positions, and frustratingly, this continued to happen when the game was over as a contest:
Despite getting a new attack coach, Ireland haven’t yet figured out a way of countering rush defences, and this is a worry because France have fully bought into the Shaun Edwards blitz, and given that Les Bleus have rediscovered their flair, if Ireland can’t score a couple of tries themselves in the Stade de France on the last day of the tournament, they have no chance of coming away with a win.
Flush Or Bust
Going by Andy Farrell’s comments post-match, Ireland seem to be intent on trying to win this tournament, but for me, that’s something that requires careful consideration. Now that the air has been let out of their tyres, it’s hard to imagine Ireland knocking over a France team that are going from strength to strength on their home patch, so it might be more productive to start rotating the squad, building depth and creating genuine competition for places.
Caelan Doris made a serious impact off the bench, Ross Byrne got the ball into the wider channels more regularly, and Ireland’s attack was more fluid in general when John Cooney was introduced. Rónan Kelleher had trouble with his lineout throwing but fared better in the ball-carrying stakes than Rob Herring, but it’s worth noting that England’s defensive line speed did ease off in the second half.
That doesn’t mean that these players shouldn’t come into the reckoning for the Italy match, which will be Ireland’s easiest fixture of the tournament by far, but there is a decision to be made on whether Ireland should make minimal changes to their starting XV in an attempt to maintain cohesion and have a go at winning the Championship, or write it off and use their remaining games to build for what’s down the road. They have no shortage of soul-searching to do after this loss, but their next two Tests could bear fruit, either in the immediate future or longer-term.