Hearts & Minds

Ireland 29 - 16 England - Post-Match Analysis (Hearts And Minds) Header Photo
Sense Of Unity: There was a lot of negativity in the aftermath of Ireland’s RWC 2019 exit around how the national team wasn’t representative of the country. Maybe it was down to the private schools’ pathway or the perception that there was a preference for Leinster players (which is still debated), but there’s a greater sense now that the whole country are behind this Ireland team as a direct result of the sustained excellence that they have produced since the end of the 2021 Six Nations.

While any Irish supporter who was expecting an easy win over England on Saturday because of their second-half collapse against France the previous week will have been disappointed, Ireland having to fight to clinch a Grand Slam was a much more pleasing outcome, even if it was difficult viewing live. A walkover would have felt hollow, and even though Ireland’s detractors are happy to try to use their struggles in places against England as a stick to beat them with, it was heartening to see them battle through a tough encounter and eventually come up with the goods.

Ireland’s video analysis session this week won’t be a pleasant experience as almost every aspect of their game on Saturday could have been much sharper, but they still got every match point possible out of the game, and were a couple of stray offloads against Scotland away from finishing the Championship with maximum table points. As with every other game in this tournament, though, they navigated a difficult fixture, and how they managed to do so is definitely worth reviewing, even more so when you consider they are on the tougher side of the draw in this year’s World Cup.

Nervous Start

Johnny Sexton’s post-match comments about how Ireland put themselves under pressure from the off couldn’t have rang more true. England displayed incredible mettle by bouncing back from their embarrassing defeat to France and turned up to the Aviva Stadium a much-improved outfit. They weren’t going to let Ireland have anything easy, and imposed their aggressive defence and territorial kicking on the hosts from the get-go, forcing them into handling errors and frantic kicking exchanges:

Upon reflection, Ireland weren’t as completely error-strewn in the first half as it seemed on first viewing; they actually stretched England defensively and made a few line breaks, as well as bringing their trademark high-tempo to proceedings, but that was part of the problem.

Ireland were guilty of overplaying in the opening quarter, forcing passes and offloads that weren’t on due to players being not exactly in the right position to receive the ball or having an English defender ready to smash them backwards. The net result of this was handling mistakes that allowed England to force Ireland back into their own half, and Ireland hurt themselves badly with some sliced clearance kicks:

Once England got a foothold deep in the Irish half on the back of the above mistakes, their pack and Manu Tuilagi got over the gain line a little bit too easily for Simon Easterby’s liking:

England’s only try may have been a consolation score for Jamie George in the final ten minutes, but the penalties Ireland conceded because of the pressure being applied to them by the English attack made it a one-score game for far too long.


‘Adversity’ has been Andy Farrell’s buzz word throughout this tournament, and as off-colour as Ireland looked in the opening 30 minutes, a team with their strength of character was never going to fall apart, especially at home and with a Grand Slam at stake. They wrestled momentum back from England initially with a superb aerial take from Hugo Keenan in what proved to be a huge turning point in the game:

The period of possession that Ireland enjoyed on the back of Keenan’s impressive take squeezed a penalty out of England, and from there Ireland launched one of the cleanest first-phase strike-move tries you will see at the top level.

England had no end of consternation defending the tail of the lineout against France, and although they were more physical and better organised in open play, this was still a problem area for them, and Ireland were cold-blooded in taking advantage of it:

Around the same time, the thunder that England started the game with began to dissipate, and Ireland started finding gaps and passive tackles to exploit, particularly on the blind side:

Ireland kept their foot on the gas following Sheehan’s try, and finished the first half with a sweeping open side attack off a lineout that culminated in a red card offence for a Freddie Steward high shot:

The severity of the above collision and whether it warranted a red card continues to be argued, but ultimately, extensive passages of defence often lead to offences, and Steward paid the price for the pressure his team were under.

Finishing In Fine Style

It wasn’t all plain sailing for Ireland after half-time, however. They struggled to adjust to the man advantage, and similar to the start of the first half, appeared nervous, taking unnecessary risks with the ball, getting turned over on the ground repeatedly and losing kicking duels. The fact that they scoreline remained so close was cause for concern, and Owen Farrell’s 51st minute penalty making it a one-score game created a sense of panic around the Aviva Stadium.

Scrum penalties, blown lineouts and knock-ons in the air have a way of deflating teams, and Ireland were hamstrung by all three in the third quarter, but as they have done all Championship, they rebounded from a rough spell and put their opponent to the sword. A Ryan Baird breakdown penalty and Johnny Sexton garryowen handed Ireland a five-metre scrum, and from there, they never relinquished control of the game.

A strong carry from the increasingly prominent Bundee Aki gave Ireland the momentum and space to crash over through Robbie Henshaw two phases later:

There was a noticeable change in body language from both sides following this score, and this was the point in the game where Ireland’s remarkable fitness levels came into play.

Andy Farrell’s side pride themselves on having the aerobic capacity to keep attacking teams for the 80 minutes, and there did look to be a disparity between the teams in this regard, with some weak tackling from the English pack giving the impactful Jack Conan the freedom to offload down the blind side for Dan Sheehan’s second try:

At that point, it looked like the English resistance was broken, but Ireland went for the jugular, and capped off a stellar final quarter performance with a maul break try for Rob Herring:

Scoring a bonus point try by going wide-wide would have been exhilarating, but there was something more satisfactory about getting it in the above manner against an English pack who, to their credit, played their part in making this game a contest by being spiky and hard-hitting.

The man of the hour, though, was Ireland’s talisman and captain, Johnny Sexton. He might have been disappointed with limping off the pitch due to a groin injury, but that was fitting given that he has finished so many games in the same way due to the physical abuse that opponents attempt to inflict upon him.

Very few players get to sign off on their own terms, but on Saturday evening, Johnny Sexton got the fairytale Six Nations send-off. He was overcome with tears during the anthems before the France clash, but he seemed to enjoy every second of the match and celebrations at the weekend, and it’s hard to think of another Irish player who is more deserving of leading their team to a Grand Slam in front of a home crowd against England on St. Patrick’s weekend:

Sky-High Expectations

History tells us that Ireland aren’t comfortable wearing the ‘favourites’ tag heading into any game or tournament, but for better or worse, that’s the position that they find themselves in now. There are a number of players in this Ireland squad who have baggage from previous World Cups that went awry, but there are plenty more besides that don’t, and they have infused the experience of the older players with an energy that make Ireland a potent force at this moment in time.

Since Ireland came good under Andy Farrell in the last round of the 2021 Six Nations Championship, they have only lost to France in the Stade de France and the All Blacks in Eden Park, arguably the two scariest venues in Test rugby. In hindsight, those two defeats look to have been important steps in Ireland’s development and have laid the foundations for what they have achieved in this tournament, as have the games against the Māori All Blacks, New Zealand XV, not to mention the South African sides they faced on the Emerging Ireland tour.

The ‘peaking too early’ principle doesn’t seem to apply either if Johnny Sexton’s and Andy Farrell’s comments in the aftermath of the victory over England are anything to go by, and you do get the sense that there is a hunger in this team to push on and achieve even more. Sexton’s fitness is still crucial to Ireland’s chances of making history in France later on this year, but Farrell and co. have created a successful environment and a squad whose depth rivals that of any other international side, so as long as self-doubt doesn’t creep in, they have all the tools to go the distance in the World Cup.


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