Twickenham deflation was a reminder that we’re not as good as we think we are

Ireland’s tactical approach played into the hands of a well-prepared England side

Ireland’s Johnathan Sexton watches on as England scrumhalf Danny Care celebrates after scoring his side’s only try at Twickenham.

Ireland’s Johnathan Sexton watches on as England scrumhalf Danny Care celebrates after scoring his side’s only try at Twickenham.

Wed, Feb 26, 2014, 12:00

The deflation among the Irish at Twickenham last Saturday was so real you could nearly reach out and touch it. I hung around the stadium when the game was over to watch the women’s game and when the men’s team came out to watch it, you just got that real sense of an opportunity lost.

This wasn’t like one of those old defeats at Twickenham where you just wanted to get out of the place as quick as possible. This was nearly worse in a way. Irish teams have learned how to win there over the past decade so when a chance like this slips through your fingers, there’s an empty feeling that goes along with it.

I met some supporters outside afterwards and there was no real anger and no people giving out that they’d made a mess of it. People were just disappointed that a game that had been there for the taking was allowed to slip away. The better team on the day were the winners and even though Ireland could have won, nobody could argue that we deserved to.

That’s why it was so deflating. All the optimism of last week was gone. It felt like everyone was realising that we’re maybe not as good as we thought we were. Or that for all the plaudits we’ve been giving Joe Schmidt and his team, they probably didn’t get their tactics quite right for the job Ireland needed to do.

First maul
Our maul was something that was so strong in the first two games but we didn’t press it home against England. It was close to half-time before we had the first maul. We didn’t use it to set the tone, we didn’t use it to our advantage the way we could have.

Ireland were quite fortunate to only be 3-0 down at half-time. The effort levels were phenomenal from the Irish players but they were out on their feet at times trying to hold out the English boys. We just looked that little yard off the intensity needed and the pace needed.

I was sitting down at pitch level, really close to the action, and it looked to me like we were really just hanging on to England in that first half. We didn’t have a lot of momentum ourselves and England’s strategy was to stop us at source and really frustrate the Irish players who didn’t cope well with it.

The team looked a bit tense to me. They played a bit within themselves and played too much rugby in their own half of the field. They spent long periods of the game looking a bit stand-offish and then when they tried to go for it, it was too late. I got the sense that the players were nearly expecting it to happen automatically.

They were waiting on it. Waiting for the intensity to just come by itself. Waiting for the maul to click. Waiting for someone else to carry. That can happen. It only takes one or two players to be slightly off and it has a knock-on effect throughout the team.

And I do think the tactics were wrong at times. This was always going to be a cup rugby game. It was always going to be low-scoring and physical and dominated by defence. The way to play it should have been to kick more for territory maul it, take them on up front. That wasn’t the way we went about it.

Watch the game again and count the amount of pick-and-jams that Ireland did. You won’t need many fingers. It just wasn’t in the gameplan at all and you have to ask yourself why that was.

The best explanation is that Ireland wanted to run around them, a tactic that has worked against England before. Keep the ball moving and find weakness on the outside. I can see the logic to a certain extent – the more we brought their wingers forward to have to get involved in defence, the more room there would be behind them to kick the ball into. But I would have liked to see us engage them more up front first.

Defensive plan
Anyway, England were ready for it. Their defensive plan was based on being really strong and aggressive around the fringes and in the 10/12 channel, pushing Ireland out to the touchlines and exposing us there and slow down our ball. It meant that when Ireland’s forwards were carrying, they were doing it out around the touchline off slow possession.

It also meant that we weren’t playing enough of the game in their half. We didn’t drop anchor up their end of the pitch at any stage. We got in a couple of times in the first half but turned over the ball almost immediately. When it came to the last 10 minutes and we were trying to run it out of our own 22, we ended up chasing it from too far out.

The English players looked a little bit comfortable to be honest. Fair play to them, they made themselves the better team and implemented a better plan. The players will have looked at the game by now obviously and I think they’ll realise that they got some aspects of it wrong.

Their execution wasn’t good enough at times. The kicking wasn’t accurate enough and the protection of the ball once we got into their half wasn’t good enough either. When you add all these little things together, you see why Ireland weren’t able to close it out.

The critical point was when Ireland led, first 10-3 and then 10-6. That was when we needed to be playing down in their half. We needed Johnny Sexton to be clever and assured with his kicking at that point and instead he made some crucial mistakes.

His restart that went out over the sideline was the obvious one – he mishit it and didn’t put it where he wanted it. No disgrace in that, it has happened to every outhalf in the world at some point or other.

But again, it was down to a flaw in the way the Ireland team as a whole were thinking about the game. That ball needed to go long from the restart. England had just brought it back to 10-6 but scores were so hard to come by in that game and defences on both sides were so well-drilled.

Ireland should have been making them start again deep inside their own half, especially since chance to play the game down there had been so few and far between all day. It was one of a few decisions that just seemed wrong to me.

Credit to England, they stopped Ireland’s flow. They played the game in areas of the pitch where we didn’t want to be. They were smart and powerful and played to their strengths. They fully deserved their win as a result.

Ireland’s side
It was amazing to me in the build-up how widespread the belief was that Ireland were going to win. Just about every Irish person I spoke to came down on Ireland’s side, which was surprising given the level of physicality that England are capable of. Stuart Lancaster has brought a sort of calmness and composure to the squad which meant that you couldn’t rely on them to do something silly like you maybe could with a couple of England teams in the recent past.

They had home advantage. They have become a really hard-working, humble and skilful side who blew Scotland off the field and should have won by far more than they did and who also should have beaten France. They just looked to have a lot going for them so when I was asked on Against The Head who I thought would win, I went for England.

But it was a very marginal call. Ireland did have a lot of positives going in and you wouldn’t blame anyone for picking them but I still would have thought that there’d be a few more who went for England. I suppose it was just a sign of the optimism that was around Ireland and the momentum that people thought was behind the team.

That momentum got a bit of a jolt but I think it’s clear from the reaction since the game has shown that people are still willing to give them a chance. There’s a slight touch of the old frustration at the inconsistency of one big win followed by a disappointing defeat but I think this is a reality check more than anything.

A lot of progress has been made. We can’t dismiss that. This game was a bit of a blip and it’s a test for the players mentally now but it’s not a disaster. Before the championship started, three home wins would have been seen as a good return and a decent reflection of where we were. That’s the reality of it.

So far, the team is coming along well under Joe Schmidt and this was only one game. We’re in the mix. We’ve gone to Twickenham and come close to winning. We should beat Italy and then it’s a matter of seeing what Paris brings. When that’s over, then we can assess things and work out where we’re at.

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