Injuries to Zebo and Sexton merely deepen the gloom of a dark day
England's Ben Youngs and Mike Brown lead the celebrations at the final whistle following the victory over Ireland at the Aviva Stadium. photograph: stu foster/getty
RUGBY: Six NationsA damp squib of a day in every sense. In seeing their Grand Slam and Triple Crown hopes evaporate, Ireland’s title hopes also took a battering.
Not alone did they lose 12-6 to England yesterday, they lost Simon Zebo within 10 minutes and Jonathan Sexton barely half an hour in, with Zebo’s broken bone in his foot sidelining him for ten weeks, while Sexton’s hamstring injury is liable to rule him out for at least the upcoming trek to Scotland in a fortnight and possibly the rest of the Six Nations. There also remains the possibility that Cian Healy will be cited for an alleged stamping.
“He’ll get a scan either later tonight or tomorrow but he looks to have given his hamstring a bit of a tear,” said Declan Kidney afterwards.
“There will be a couple of weeks in that. How much? I think it would be wrong of me to try and second-guess; we’ll know more and be clearer tomorrow or the next day.”
Zebo will miss the rest of the tournament and Munster’s Heineken Cup quarter-final after suffering a broken metatarsal.
Sean O’Brien (hamstring strain and injured thumb), Rob Kearney (dead leg), Brian O’Driscoll (twisted ankle), Mike McCarthy (medial ligament strain) and Donnacha Ryan (who was having an x-ray on a back injury) to name but another five, were also evidently playing through the pain barrier long before the end of a bruising battle.
Indeed, by the end, Ireland looked more than a little battered, and unlike a week ago the pain would not have been eased by the result. About the only Irish ray of light on a wet, miserable day was the news of O’Driscoll becoming a dad on the morning of the game, taking three hours away from the Irish base in the Shelbourne Hotel as his wife Amy Huberman gave birth to a baby girl, Sadie.
But how it rained on his and Ireland’s day thereafter. For all the fears of another trying day at scrum time, those fears were never realised, and for all a youthful England’s impressive composure, on days such as this invariably the team that makes the least mistakes wins. And so it came to pass, Ireland spilling the greasy pill nine times in the first half alone amid a surfeit of unforced handling errors.
While Kidney admitted it was an “extremely disappointing result” he would not go so far as to describe the performance in those terms. “Obviously when you turn the ball over that much you’re going to be disappointed in your own performance, but to get to 6-all and then lost out, that’s disappointing. So the result is extremely disappointing, and there are aspects of the performance we can do so much better but we weren’t too far off the mark either.”
The Irish coach lamented the way Irish handling errors eased the pressure on England and the way his team coughed up more kickable penalties despite England losing the penalty count 14-11. The net effect is to leave England two points clear of a four-way posse as the only remaining unbeaten side.
“That gives England a little bit of daylight,” admitted Kidney. “Who is to know? Right now we are extremely disappointed . . . I think France are in Twickenham next time around, let’s see what they show up with. England have to go to Cardiff as well in the last game.
“I would say there is a hell of a lot to play for but there is every time you put on a jersey. We have three more opportunities to get three wins. Let’s get to eight points and let’s see what everyone else has at the end of it.
“The Grand Slam is a wonderful thing to win but putting it all together takes an awful lot. There is a championship first and foremost to be played for, and we are well in that. We just need to learn from today.”
Two of the handling errors in that mistake-riddled opening half were out of character spillages of high balls by Jamie Heaslip, who also conceded the first two of Owen Farrell’s four penalties. Typical of his willingness to show up for work, he was Ireland’s leading tackler and joint second highest carrier behind Sean O’Brien, although in a game of inches, they didn’t gain much.
“I don’t really want to blame the conditions because both teams played in (them) but they didn’t help,” said Heaslip, who was at a loss to know why Ireland were so culpable. “There were a lot of knock-ons and unforced errors and it was frustrating, but we just tried to constantly regroup and go again.
“England, to their credit, played a good pressure game. They contested our rucks and put us under pressure, and their line-speed was quite good. When we had the ball we put them under pressure but we didn’t take our scores.”
England rocked a little in the third quarter, with Ronan O’Gara briefly pulling the sides level. But helped by an injection of fresh firepower off the bench and with Ben Youngs and the feisty Owen Farrell marshalling matters, England calmly and assuredly saw out the ten minutes which James Haskell spent in the bin, even outscoring Ireland by 6-0 in that spell before closing out the game.
England stuck to their game plan, kicked well out of hand, controlled their own ball better and made less errors, without ever looking like they would open up Ireland’s defence; Ireland being attributed with the game’s only three line breaks.
But conditions were probably more conducive to England, whose physical strength and power told in a try-less arm -wrestle and England’s own defensive line speed and tackle execution was unremittingly accurate.
“To come here with such a young side and show that level of maturity to close out the game was very pleasing,” said Stuart Lancaster, whose contentment was understandable.
This was another big stepping stone for an emerging force in the world game.