Visitors prove their character as they rise to the challenge
What would have happened had Ireland gone to the corner on that rare sortie into England’s territory and not kicked for goal; could they have won this enthralling match? Ireland threw everything they had at England but were unable to cross for the crucial try mainly because of England’s pressure and Ireland’s mistakes on the margins. Pressure can be cruel, so much so that as the English piled on top of Rob Kearney in the corner the only respite he could muster was a Matrix type moment when placing his hand across the touchline to get the hell out of there.
England were very good with the ball, and even missing tackles (11) they were supreme without it.
After 46 minutes England led 15-0 against the All Blacks last December. Five minutes later the score was 15-14. In not capitulating against the world champions but kicking on England’s under belly proved very strong. A culture of strength of mind was obviously a core building block for Stuart Lancaster.
Like any fixture there are key moments and England’s management of those moments was extremely impressive. Not unlike the concession of two tries to the All Blacks, James Haskell's temporary departure brought the score to 6-6, and with rain bucketing down and Ronan O’Gara at ten to push England around, they seemed vulnerable. But, like last December, England rose to the challenge and real character came out.
As usual my attention drifted away from the obvious. Clearly Jamie Heaslip had one of those days where the margins went against him but I couldn’t help getting sucked into contributing factors, off the ball, such as English hooker Tom Youngs.
His work-rate in defence, pushing his team-mates aggressively into the corridor of power, was immense. Likewise his replacement Dylan Hartley looked like he had been broken down from the man he was and reconditioned.
With only minutes remaining Donncha O’Callaghan sailed high to win a lineout but Hartley working very hard got around "offside" and it took Cian Healy’s persuasive technique to get him out of there. In doing so, with Hartley lying on the floor, Healy lovingly tapped him on the face.
In that moment Hartley’s natural reaction to retaliate came surging out but he checked himself and carried on. This is hardly relevant but a very focused and determined Hartley has been a rare sight and is now a dangerous animal, and gives a window into the heart of what England are fast becoming.
So what are they becoming? As expected they brought less running threat than Wales can muster but a team of youth and inexperience managed the margins by sucking the time out of Ireland’s every movement. The obvious place for that was in their extremely disciplined defence that worked very hard on both sides.
This seems basic and obvious but as games drift on teams tend to slow or push up on the ball side but England are too disciplined for this and it cut out many options for Ireland such as rewinds or building multiphases as the English gobbled up ground and time.
Not one Irish player got the ball cheaply. Haskell’s performance at blindside was superb in this aspect as he powered his way into everything, not giving up on any margin. The sinbin was a result of this very attitude.
The weather suited England’s power game but Owen Farrell’s character shone brightly in managing field position. To Ireland’s credit, the breakdown was hard- fought and England rarely got a flow of under five second ball and hence remained tryless. Ireland did manage quicker ball which could have been telling in later periods of the match, but their error count stifled any momentum.
Thing of beauty
The scrum as always is a thing of beauty and what a contest it turned out to be, as the advantage ebbed and flowed. Ross shouldn’t have to play 79 minutes, but he did. He has many tools in his armoury to combat Joe Marler and Youngs and height is the chief of them. The Aviva turf doesn’t give the same purchase to get the height down low enough to depower the English and that is why those early scrums looked more uncomfortable than necessary.
In a tight game the bench plays a huge part. England were bolstered by Hartley and Courtney Lawes, who added weight and experience to the pack. Tactical impact is the purpose of the bench and Lawes's very first action was to sprint up from fringe defence as Conor Murray floated the ball to O’Gara; he’s a frightening sight. As O’Gara cleared a beauty towards touch all 6ft 7in and 17½ stone smashed O’Gara into the ground. Moments later he smashed Rob Kearney to the deck causing his own early retirement but the score shifted to 6-12; impact.
The English bench powered them on during very challenging times and all the while Owen Farrell grew in strength, epitomised by his hunting of O’Gara. It seemed the 21-year-old was intent on suffocating the 35-year-old.
When facing such pressure the accuracy of Ireland’s play had to be perfect to afford momentum and create mismatches, especially in the first half where Ireland had eight to two handling errors over England after just 30 minutes. In an effort to mask the error count, Ireland started threading through balls on the deck but the English back three played the conditions superbly.
This was a brilliant and brutal match where England’s effectiveness has made a major cultural step. For Ireland there is huge ground for optimism and opportunity. The championship is very much alive.