A taut, tense and titanic test

One that got away as Ireland fail to break down tough England defence

Ireland’s Brian O’Driscoll hands off England’s Danny Care during Saturday’s match at Twickenham. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Ireland’s Brian O’Driscoll hands off England’s Danny Care during Saturday’s match at Twickenham. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Mon, Feb 24, 2014, 01:01

A taut, tense and titanic test was bookended by a scoreless opening 23 minutes and a scoreless last 23 minutes, but it was no less compelling for all of that. This was proper Test match rugby, an absorbing toe-to-toe first-half building into a couple of huge momentum shifts in a second-half which ebbed and flowed until the climax.

At the end of it all, England management, players and supporters heaved a huge collective sigh of relief and punched the air. For this emerging young team, this was a huge, potentially benchmark win, coming through a searching test from a comparatively wilier Irish side.

For Ireland, this was one that got away. They played bravely, were tactically smart in trying to expose the inexperienced English wingers in the air and on the ground, and unveiled an array of strike moves that hadn’t been on display in the home wins over Scotland and Wales. The fake maul set up as Chris Henry peeled off the tail and use of decoy midfield runners for Johnny Sexton’s crosskick to Andrew Trimble couldn’t have been more perfectly choreographed had it been designed on a computer.

Highlights: England v Ireland

Listening to Joe Schmidt afterwards, it’s possible that Trimble might have palmed the ball immediately down to the onrushing Rob Kearney, but the extra second or two for the catch and pass enabled the English cover to prevent the try.

In that move and others, Ireland also cleverly used decoy screens and a second, deeper line, thereby giving themselves options.

Profound impact
That said, they could only keep Mike Brown out of the game for so long, and ultimately the quick-footed Harlequins’ fullback had a profound impact on the outcome.

Ireland also made mistakes, too many of them for their own or coaches’ liking, be it forcing passes and dropping the ball, or kicking loosely, or missing tackles. There were 21 of those in all, although the scramble defence, and regrouping in the red zone, was awesome. If Ireland didn’t open them up in the first phase or two, they rarely looked like doing so.

In the modern game of biff, bang, wallop collision rugby where line breaks and space are at a premium, Irish teams are generally punching above their weight against most of the world’s leading sides, and invariably so against England. No-one typifies this more than the midfield dynamos Gordon D’Arcy and Brian O’Driscoll.

D’Arcy was credited with 12 tackles (joint second with Sexton behind Devin Toner on a remarkable 16) and 11 carries (Ireland’s third highest after Jamie Heaslip and Rob Kearney). Most of those carries inched out extra metres when, as usual, there seemed to be none on offer, and O’Driscoll had probably his best game of the campaign, running hard and unveiling his box of tricks in staining every sinew to open up an obdurate England.

However, not only are Ireland missing their best ball carrier in Sean O’Brien but the kind of strike running which Tommy Bowe provided with his two tries here in the win of four years ago. Raw the English wingers may be, and the two Kearneys’ positional play, catching and running could scarcely be faulted, England’s back three gave them more of a cutting edge.

England may be younger, but they’re also bigger and stronger, epitomised by the outstanding Joe Launchbury. Their quick line speed was unrelenting and being forced to replace Billy Vunipola with Ben Morgan actually improved their defence. Yet Schmidt used the interval to stunning effect, reprising the try which Rob Kearney scored off an inside pass close to the recycle in Leinster’s semi-final win over Clermont in Bordeaux in 2012 for Heaslip to stand up Dylan Hartley and Paul O’Connell to nudge Launchbury out of the play.

Restart game
Two big mauls either side of a huge Irish scrum followed for Sexton to make it 10-3 and the Fields echoed around Twickenham. Fleetingly, it felt good to be Irish. But Ireland’s restart game caused them no end of grief, Billy Twelvetrees climbing above Rob Kearney to gather on the run, and Craig Joubert pinged Rory Best for contesting as a tackle assist.

It was a tight call, and after Farrell kicked the penalty, Sexton’s restart was short and out on the full. More pertinently, a malfunction in the defensive system, Best perhaps not sliding across with D’Arcy as Chris Robshaw took his tackle and Conor Murray in offloading inside to Brown. He drew both Kearneys to put Danny Care over. That was the game really.

In the heel of the hunt, it could be said that England left more points behind them than Ireland, in the sense that Farrell also struck the outside of the post with a penalty and both halves helped to butcher overlaps, notably when O’Mahony, Andrew Trimble and Conor Murray scrambled to deny Jonny May a seventh minute try.

Perhaps too the huge first-half defensive effort took its toll in a tired looking finale, and while the front-rowers and Fergus McFadden added impact, there weren’t too many game-changing options on the bench. Yet Schmidt was clearly livid that a hand in the scrum, side entry at ruck time, Ben Attwood being on the wrong side of a potent Irish maul, persistent side entry at ruck time plus a probable offside in the middle but ala France in the World Cup final, somehow you never felt for a moment that Ireland were going to be granted a second kick at goal in the entire game.