Despite Andy Farrell’s optimism yesterday, it’s hard to know if Ireland should actually be taking any positives from their comprehensive defeat to England. The scoreboard didn’t reflect England’s dominance, and although the two sides are at much different points in their respective trajectories, there wasn’t much in the way of inspiration. Ireland didn’t lack for effort or courage (and they coped with what England threw at them in attack), but they were soundly beaten, even if Jonny May’s second try was something of an aberration.
Hugo Keenan’s selection at full-back prevented England from ruling the skies, which was probably the main reason why their winning margin wasn’t as big as in their previous three meetings with Ireland, but they were superior in every other area, and it’s scary to think how much worse this result could have been for Ireland if Manu Tuilagi was fit. There will likely be personnel changes when next year’s Six Nations comes around, but Ireland’s collective performances are still leaving a lot to be desired.
Huffing And Puffing
Ireland actually started this game brightly, using well-executed long kicks and an excellent chase to pin England deep in their own half (something that they normally do to their opposition):
It was a classic case of turning an opponent’s strengths against them, and once Ireland got the ball kicked back to them from these positions, they cleverly attacked the blind side, a wise tactic against any blitz defence:
England looked uncomfortable initially, but once Ireland started making mistakes, Eddie Jones’ side took control of the game with a brace of tries, forcing Ireland into the same panicky phase-play attack that they produced in the Stade de France on Halloween night.
Apart from some strong charges from Chris Farrell, the English defence accounted for Ireland easily, with their line speed putting Ireland under intense pressure, forcing their players to run laterally (a bugbear of any attack coach):
Gavin Coombes has been tearing it up with a sledgehammer for Munster, and is set to be a long-term international starter, but Ireland might have to bring him in earlier than expected. That’s not a criticism of CJ Stander, who has been Ireland’s most consistent forward post-lockdown, but Coombes is tailor-made for the heavy, close-in work that is required from a blindside flanker, which would free up Stander (or Caelan Doris) to carry the ball in more open spaces at number eight.
Ireland scored a fine try through a short kick to Jacob Stockdale when the game was over but you have to wonder why they didn’t use this tactic sooner, considering the space that England were leaving in behind the front line of their defence:
No team can cover the whole field, and whatever type of defence you use, there is a blind spot somewhere, and in England’s case, they were vulnerable to grubber/chip kicks. Ireland’s starting midfield for this game are used to putting in these types of kicks, as is Keith Earls, which makes it all the more disappointing that they didn’t identify and exploit this space.
It’s not right to put all the blame on one player, but this match once again highlighted the shortcomings in Ross Byrne’s game. Standing deep and shovelling the ball on doesn’t ask any questions of a defence, and these traits worsened as the game wore on, allowing England to close down Ireland’s space by blitzing outfield quickly:
Out-half is currently something of a headache for Ireland; in Ciarán Frawley, Harry Byrne, Ben Healy and Jack Crowley, they have four highly-promising young 10’s who all have the potential to be stars at international level, but none of them are first-choice for their club. Johnny Sexton remains Ireland’s best pivot, but is in the winter of his career, and Farrell might have to break rank and fast-track one or more of the above quartet into his squad next year.
Ireland’s physicality in phase-play was at the right level, but they were second-best by a mile in the scrums, lineouts and at the breakdown, and it’s near-impossible to win a game when all of those facets of the game are going the way of your opponent. Their biggest failing in this game was out of touch, where they insisted on going to the tail early on, but did so without the accuracy that was needed:
Given that they were starting an inexperienced hooker against a fearsome English pack, the logic behind Ireland going long was questionable. Maybe they were trying to put England in two minds by doing the unexpected, but securing the ball in the opening exchanges of a game is crucial, and would have boosted their confidence in this area.
Rónan Kelleher is a remarkable physical specimen, and he can do things with ball in hand that most other hookers in the country can’t, but his lineout throwing can be an issue. Like with Ross Byrne and Ireland’s attack, you can’t single out one player for a part of a team’s performance going wrong, and if Kelleher can improve his darts, he will be the complete package.
For now, though, Andy Farrell has a difficult selection call to make at no. 2. If he backs Kelleher, his throwing could cause Ireland problems until it is corrected, but if he drops him for the more reliable Rob Herring, you lose what Kelleher offers in terms of carrying (which Ireland can’t really afford to do), and it could have a serious negative impact on his confidence. Kevin O’Byrne is a viable alternative and Dan Sheehan will force his way into the team before RWC 2023, but currently, the pecking order at hooker is not clear-cut for Ireland.
Ireland didn’t fare any better at the breakdown, where they had no answer for the disruptive jackalling of Tom Curry and Sam Underhilll.
Dan Leavy has made a sensational return for Leinster in the Pro14, and looks certain to come back in at 7 for Ireland immediately on the back of their problems on the ground yesterday. He is more than capable of providing the brute force and viciousness that is necessary at the ruck against players like Curry and Underhill. That’s not a slight on Peter O’Mahony, who was one of Ireland’s best performers yesterday, but Leavy was a game-changer at openside for Ireland in 2018, and is better-suited to the position than the Munster captain.
There is a certain amount of settling in time given to any new coach, but when they’re not winning, supporters’ patience starts to run out sooner rather than later. Many are starting to question Andy Farrell’s keep-ball tactics at a time when the successful teams are the ones who kick the most. Rugby tends to shift back and forth with regards to focus on attack and defence, and at the moment, defence is king.
Maybe Farrell is trying to be ahead of the curve by developing a style of play that counters these tactics, but until the results come, the perception is going to be that Ireland are floundering. He has spoken about wanting his players to make decisions based on the feel and flow of the game, and we did see evidence of that in the first 10 minutes before they reverted to one-out carrying. They’re not going to forget everything that Joe Schmidt drilled into them for six years overnight, but all the same, it’s frustrating to see them fall into the same trap against the same opponent four games in a row.