Aside from a few bright sparks, it’s fair to say that Ireland have looked out of sorts since getting beaten out the gate by England in the 2019 Six Nations. Plenty of underlying causes have been theorised, but whether it came down to injury/loss of form to key players, a game plan/style of play that had been figured out by the opposition, the pressure of a World Cup or a new coaching ticket, the longer their slide continued, the more you started to wonder if they could ever get back to the top of the table again.
Any such suspicions of a potential decline in Irish rugby were banished yesterday, and while England are faltering at this moment in time, they are the same team that reached a World Cup final 15 months ago, so even the narrowest of victories over them are well-earned. Ireland went a step further than that, taking them apart after a shaky opening, and although scrum dominance and English ill-discipline were significant factors in Ireland dominating this fixture, they were remarkable in their execution of a game plan that their players and coaches have had faith in all through what has been a challenging tournament for them.
Casting Off The Shackles
Getting Ireland to be more adventurous in attack has been Mike Catt’s primary objective since he took charge of Ireland’s attack, an aim that was welcomed after Ireland’s methodical phase play became somewhat stagnant in 2019. However, the majority of Ireland’s attacking performances under the Englishman have been the worst combination of the absence of the hyper-accuracy of Joe Schmidt’s tenure and the lack of familiarity with taking advantage of the opportunities that a more expansive attacking structure presents.
Yesterday was a huge leap in the right direction for Ireland in this regard, and there were a couple of important characteristics to their attacking play that were the difference between them struggling to generate forward momentum and putting together one of the most exciting team scores in recent memory. Chief among them was how Ireland freed up Johnny Sexton to stand in a wider position in attack by having forwards pass two-out and other members of the back line step in at first-receiver:
It was a welcome change to the repeated one-out forward carries, which weren’t doing Ireland any favours against bigger teams due to its overuse. It was a brutally effective tactic under Schmidt (and still one worth using in moderation as this game showed), but it had become something of a bugbear for Ireland, a habit that they tend to revert to when they’re up against it.
Andy Farrell spoke in his post-match interview about how pleased he was to see Ireland play from moment to moment, and the really heartening feature of their work in possession was how they weren’t slaves to a system, with their players having the confidence to go off-script if they spotted an opening. There were numerous instances where Ireland were set up to go through their 1-3-2-2 shape, but when their forwards identified space around the fringes, they weren’t shy about charging through it:
The same freedom applied to their backs with Ireland not being afraid to have a cut at the blind side on short notice when they recognised that England were lacking defenders in that area:
Their use of the boot to pressurise England was intelligent as well, with attacking kicks being used when they were on the front foot, as opposed to the launching of garryowens as a last resort that pockmarked their attacking performances against Wales, France and Scotland:
It may be true that Ireland remain over-reliant on Sexton as a playmaker, but until they decide to go with a second passer in the back line, the other aspects of how they switch up their attack were more than enough to break down a side as defensively strong as England.
Ireland have had some issues in defence in this Championship, with passive line speed and substandard tackling contributing to soft tries being conceded in the 15-metre channel against Wales, France and Scotland. They were guilty of gifting Ben Youngs a cheap score down the blind side of a maul yesterday, but admittedly this happened when they were down a man, and Jonny May’s late try was little more than a consolation.
Outside of those disappointing periods, Ireland were rock-solid when England were in possession, escaping tricky situations when Eddie Jones’ side had set-piece platforms in promising positions through a mix of aggressive line speed and smart organisation:
Questionable red card notwithstanding, Bundee Aki added a huge amount to what Ireland did yesterday, particularly in defence. The Connacht stalwart exerted enormous pressure on the English midfield axis, thereby stymying a lot of their wide movements:
This prevented their dangerous back three from getting into the game in a meaningful way in phase play, and England’s other main attacking weapon was nullified by the commanding performance of Hugo Keenan at full-back.
England caused Ireland’s backfield no end of discomfort in 2020 with their kicking out of hand, and as potent as Jordan Larmour is with ball in hand, Keenan provided Ireland with a level of security in the air that was reminiscent of Rob Kearney in his heyday:
It’s difficult to understand why England insisted on kicking straight to Keenan and Robbie Henshaw off restarts and in open play, and the inability to navigate a course to victory when neither their attack or aerial bombardment functioned is something Eddie Jones will have to address, given that it has lost England three games in one series.
Silencing The Critics
Had Keith Earls been awarded a second try and Bundee Aki not been sent off, Ireland could have run away with this match, despite the scoreline being impressive anyway, and even though this performance and result might turn out to be a one-off, it should give Farrell and co. enough credit in the bank to continue to develop Ireland into a more vibrant attacking outfit. Ireland’s coaching ticket have been the subjects of harsh criticism lately, but yesterday demonstrated just what can be achieved when you allow a new think tank time to settle in.
Special mention must be made of the fact that this was CJ Stander’s final game in an Ireland jersey, and his display yesterday was the perfect sign-off for one of the most loyal servants and outstanding performers that Irish rugby has ever had. Unfortunately, it seems he is only going to be fully appreciated when he is gone because, upon reflection, there aren’t too many back rowers out there that possess his work-rate, energy, commitment, leadership, physicality and technical prowess all in one package.
Ireland have a job on their hands finding someone who comes even close to replicating what he delivered every game. Jack Conan was superb yesterday and Caelan Doris is a fine prospect, but in the Aviva Stadium yesterday evening, Stander was carrying into triple-tackles, and still winning the collision:
Thanks for everything, CJ.