It’s strange to be able to say that winning by a big margin in Twickenham and notching a bonus point in the process was less than satisfactory for an Ireland team, but there’s no question that they have a lot to review in the aftermath of their remarkable clash with England yesterday. Despite being a man up for almost the entire game, Ireland repeatedly played into England’s hands by handing them scrums via basic errors on a day when England’s more than questionable technique in that area was winning them penalties at every opportunity.
Losing James Ryan so early in the game affected Ireland’s set-piece work and their physicality around the pitch, but they were overly reliant on a clever bench selection as well as the English pack burning out. Robbie Henshaw gave them huge impetus in midfield, Jack Conan’s pace caused the English defence a lot of problems and Conor Murray’s calmness and quality of pass-execution were crucial to Ireland going after England in the final 10 minutes. It was the previous 70 that was the issue, and there is a considerable amount that will need to be rectified before they take on Scotland next Saturday.
The second biggest talking point from this game was the scrum, and the 6 penalties that were awarded to England by Mathieu Raynal. The legality of the scrummaging technique and angles of the English props has been hotly-debated, and when you see the overhead view of some of the scrums, you can understand why:
Ireland are well within their rights to feel aggrieved at the officiating of this area yesterday, but the fact that they couldn’t problem-solve and work around it either by drawing Raynal’s attention to the boring in and side-stepping from Ellis Genge and Kyle Sinckler or change their own techniques to counter the English props even after half-time was disconcerting.
Ireland’s work under the high ball, usually a strength of theirs, turned into a glaring weakness in the third quarter. Hugo Keenan had a superb game, and he was excellent in the air as usual, but England recognised that he was somewhat isolated after coming back to ground, and they got a great return from launching garryowens at him:
Aerial bombardment is something that Ireland normally inflict on other teams, and although they improved the quality of their ruck support soon after the above examples, their mistakes in this facet of the game had the potential to be confidence-draining to the point of causing them to come unstuck completely.
Even off restarts, they did not look comfortable in the second half, and for a player as experienced as Iain Henderson to drop a seemingly straightforward take as the below was an indicator of the pressure that they were under:
Add in some offside and truck-and-trailer penalties at the lineout, and you get a picture of a team who were struggling to execute the most fundamental aspects of the game.
Loss Of Composure
The patches of the game where Ireland did enjoy possession deep in the English half saw several mistakes from them, too. After botching the restart at the start of the second half, Ireland did put some decent attacking sets together, and were on the charge against an English defence that was starting to tire, but numerous times they forced unnecessary offloads when the try-line was at their mercy:
Passing out of contact would have been the right call if Ireland were finding it tough to make any headway against England and needed to do something different to break through, but they were getting over the gain line with every carry, and weren’t exactly running out of time to score in the above clips. If Tadhg Beirne and Tadhg Furlong had just gone to ground and set up another ruck in the instances above, Ireland would likely have scored a phase or two later anyway.
Ireland weren’t flawless in defence, either. In spite of having an extra man, England somehow got around the edge of Ireland’s defence on a few occasions, and Ireland were guilty of falling off tackles too easily in the wider channels:
It’s not as potent an English backline as in years gone by in terms of pace or power, and while Sam Simmonds is effective in the tramlines, Ireland should have done a better job of pushing out and closing down the space available to England instead of nervously standing off them.
The Best Of Intentions
Even though there were no shortage of disappointing elements to Ireland’s performance yesterday, it wasn’t a total disaster. There were some standout individual performances from the likes of Dan Sheehan, Tadhg Beirne, Caelan Doris and Andrew Conway, and on the whole, Ireland did create plenty of try-scoring chances. Notwithstanding their high error count, their points of attack and their attacking schemes were perfectly tailored to get around the English blitz defence.
Ireland regularly overloaded the blind side and attacked it with ‘1-1’ plays from the outset, having recognised that English were inclined to leave this area short of defenders:
Their open side plays were also quite productive. They countered the aggressive out-to-in defence from England by having the players beyond second-receiver standing incredibly deep to outflank the English edge defender, and having a late injection from the second-last attacker into the line on an arcing run from deep generated overlaps for them:
Inside passes were a prominent feature of Ireland’s attack as well, and what was interesting was that they didn’t go same-way with ball in hand all that often. It’s a pattern that feeds into England’s defensive strengths and Ireland have fallen into the trap of doing it in their last couple of meetings with them prior to last year, but the variation that they demonstrated this time round forced the English defenders to hesitate slightly.
Strength Of Character
Donal Lenihan made the valid point in RTE’s match commentary that games like this are important for a team’s development on the road to a World Cup as they need to learn how to react to adversity, and Johnny Sexton’s post-match comments echoed a similar sentiment. While there is a lot for Ireland to improve on after that game, I’m not sure how much good it would have done them if they had gone through the match on cruise control scoring tries at will with the man advantage.
‘What if?’ reasoning is somewhat redundant, but it’s hard to know what way the game would have unfolded if the red card hadn’t occurred. England got a massive lift on the back of it, and there was more than a little evening out from Raynal afterwards. England’s scrum tactics would have been the same regardless, but how many of them would they have had if Ireland didn’t spend the game frantically forcing offloads?
The disallowed try for Caelan Doris in the 12th minute was a major turning point in the game in hindsight, as before it was called back for the knock-on from Jamison Gibson-Park, the body language from the English players changed considerably and you got the sense that the floodgates were about to open. Ireland didn’t cross the whitewash again until just before half-time, and the question of whether or not they should have been further ahead on the scoreboard by that stage must have started to play on the minds of the Irish players and affect their performance.
Ireland did show impressive mental fortitude to hang in a game that was turning against them thereafter and go for the jugular in the end, but they will have some soul-searching to do in order to figure out why they were panicked and error-strewn for 70 minutes of this game, and why they still haven’t put together an accurate performance in this Championship. It’s a testament to the quality of their squad and their resilience that they are heading into the final weekend of the tournament with a chance of winning it despite not playing well, but it’s worrying that the clinical edge they possessed in November seems to have disappeared.