Chastened Ireland emphatically put back in their box

England dominate key gain-line contest as Ireland’s go-to carriers stopped in their tracks

Ireland 20 England 32

This was like a step back in time, akin to the 2003 Grand Slam dunking, or much of the 90s, when juggernaut English teams came over and simply bullied Irish teams. And so Ireland have been put back in their box.

Still stewing over Ireland’s St Patrick’s Day coronation on their Twickenham turf, and further wounded at club level almost without exception in the last couple of years, not to mention having lost on all but one of their previous six championship visits here, and continually hearing how wonderful Ireland had become, England came to Dublin highly charged. They brought more energy, more talk (on the ref’s mike, it was mostly English accents), more enthusiasm; heck, more anger.

Go through the match stats and you could almost believe it was a very close-run game, be it possession, territory, line breaks, offloads, set-piece and breakdown efficiency. Ireland made more carries and metres, and less tackles and less missed tackles.


But one imbalanced statistic stands out like a sore thumb, that of ‘dominant tackles’, of which England were credited with 46 to Ireland’s nine.

Eight of those were attributed to the astonishing Mako Vunipola, loosehead prop cum loose forward, who was credited with 27 tackles in some statistical analysis which was revised to 31 yesterday, along with a dozen carries.

Pretty much locked and fully loaded, with the Vunipolas and Manu Tuilagi all in the same starting English team for the first time, and brilliantly led by Owen Farrell, this was a major statement by England. They're back, contenders in the Six Nations and the World Cup.

This was won largely on the gain line, where Ireland's go-to carriers were stopped in their tracks – Tadhg Furlong eight carries for five metres, James Ryan 16 carries for 17 metres, CJ Stander 11 carries for six metres, Bundee Aki nine carries for 14 metres – and so their collective game had no building blocks and no momentum.

But Ireland were out-thought as well as outfought. Helped by their dominance on the gain line, England flooded the wide channels for Conor Murray's box kicks, with Jonny May superb in the air, while using the left boots of Henry Slade and Elliot Daly as well as Ben Youngs and Farrell to expose Robbie Henshaw's rusty positional sense at fullback and thus a rejigged Irish back three.

Both off-colour

England's kicks consistently found grass in the Irish backfield. After Ireland's pack had earned a try through Cian Healy to lead for the only time in the game, successive kicks by Farrell, Slade and finally Daly led to Jacob Stockdale's spillage when tackled by Jack Nowell and Daly's soft try.

On the occasion of their 50th Test start together, even Murray and Johnny Sexton were both off-colour

England also exposed a narrowness in the Irish defence which led to Keith Earls, shooting up, and then Jordan Larmour, sucked infield, being beaten by cut out passes from Farrell and Slade for their first and third tries.

In winning 18 of their previous 19 Test matches, and a record 12 in a row at home, Ireland had consistently shown themselves to be excellent front-runners. But the last time Ireland have won after trailing at half-time was in Argentina in 2014. Trailing here, they struggled to change their tack.

On the occasion of their 50th Test start together, even Murray and Johnny Sexton were both off-colour, misplacing passes and choosing to play from deep and behind the gain line when perhaps opting for territory occasionally would have been the better option.

They even had a tetchy exchange when Sexton berated Murray for kicking to touch in the 74th minute when Ireland trailed by 12 points and needed, however fancifully, two converted tries.

By then the die was cast, yet the game was still finely balanced coming toward the final quarter. At both the end of the first half and start of the second Ireland had been obliged to soak up English pressure, but trailing 17-10 they seemed to have earned a way back into the game thanks to Garry Ringrose’s read and hit on Owen Farrell.

Sexton kicked upfield and after Slade’s knock-on and Kyle Sinckler’s high hit on Ringrose, then trimmed England’s lead to 17-13.

But rather than keep the crowd in the game and playing for territory off a scrum just inside their own 10 metre line – normally a free hit to open space in the opposition back field – Ireland opted to move the ball across the width of the pitch.

However, Ringrose’s pass to Henshaw was a little high, in turn delaying the fullback’s pass to Stockdale and giving Slade the time to make the hit which in turn forced a loose pass which Stockdale knocked on around his ankles.

Lack of accuracy

That rather summed up the unusual lack of accuracy in Ireland's performance. Owen Farrell surprisingly missed an ensuing penalty but Ireland continued to perhaps overplay their hand, first running the ball off another scrum outside their own 22 and again after Henshaw reclaimed a Murray box kick (Jérôme Garcès and Alexander Ruiz both missing a knock on by Slade), before Ringrose lost the ball forward in contact.

From the ensuing English scrum near halfway, Garcès also decreed that Slade’s cut-out pass to Jonny May, which began inside the English half and ended in Ireland’s, was correct despite his TMO Glenn Newman querying: “So you don’t want to check the pass?”

Garcès merely wanted confirmation from Whelan that Slade was not in front of May when the winger kicked ahead, and his TMO’s verdict that there was no clear evidence that the centre was in front of the ball seemed fair enough.

In any event, that was pretty much that.

Farrell's long-range penalty and an intercept try by Slade, pushing up on Sexton's pass to Aki, sealed a win and a bonus point before Sean Cronin's pace laid on a consolation try for John Cooney. Farrell's penalty had also emanated from Ireland moving slow ball in their own half when Courtney Lawes shot up to ensnare Ringrose and the ball.

The reaction of the English players when Tom Curry won the ball against Ringrose for not releasing was as if they'd won the title itself. The psychic energy had stayed with England from beginning to end.

Scoring sequence: 2 mins May try, Farrell con 0-7; 11 mins Sexton pen 3-7; 25 Healy try, Sexton con 10-7; 30 Daly try, Farrell con 10-14; 40 (+1) Farrell pen 10-17; (half-time 10-17); 54 mins Sexton pen 13-17; 66 Slade try 13-22; 70 Farrell pen 13-25; 76 Slade try, Farrell con 13-32; 80 mins Cooney try, Sexton con 20-32.

IRELAND: Robbie Henshaw (Buccaneers/Leinster); Keith Earls (Young Munster/Munster), Garry Ringrose (UCD/Leinster), Bundee Aki (Galwegians/Connacht), Jacob Stockdale (Ballynahinch/Ulster); Jonathan Sexton (St. Mary's College/Leinster), Conor Murray (Garryowen/Munster); Cian Healy (Clontarf/Leinster), Rory Best (Banbridge/Ulster) (capt), Tadhg Furlong (Clontarf/Leinster), Devin Toner (Lansdowne/Leinster), James Ryan (UCD/Leinster), Peter O'Mahony (Cork Constitution/Munster), Josh van der Flier (UCD/Leinster), CJ Stander (Shannon/Munster). Replacements: Jordan Larmour (St. Mary's College/Leinster) for Earls (half-time), Quinn Roux (Galwegians/Connacht) for Toner (57 mins), Dave Kilcoyne (UL Bohemians/Munster) for Healy, Andrew Porter (UCD/Leinster) for Furlong (both 62 mins), Sean O'Brien (UCD/Leinster) for Stander (65 mins), Sean Cronin (St. Mary's College/Leinster) for Best (68 mins), Joey Carbery (Clontarf/Munster) for Ringrose (73 mins), John Cooney (Terenure College/Ulster) for Murray (77 mins).

ENGLAND: Elliot Daly (Wasps); Jonny May (Leicester Tigers), Henry Slade (Exeter Chiefs), Manu Tuilagi (Leicester Tigers), Jack Nowell (Exeter Chiefs); Owen Farrell (Saracens), Ben Youngs (Leicester Tigers); Mako Vunipola (Saracens), Jamie George (Saracens), Kyle Sinckler (Harlequins), Maro Itoje (Saracens), George Kruis (Saracens), Mark Wilson (Newcastle Falcons), Tom Curry (Sale Sharks), Billy Vunipola (Saracens). Replacements: Courtney Lawes (Northampton Saints) for Kruis (52 mins), Nathan Hughes (Wasps) for Igoje (54 mins), Harry Williams (Exeter Chiefs) for Sinckler (65 mins), Chris Ashton (Sale Sharks) for Nowell (74 mins), Luke Cowan-Dickie (Exeter Chiefs) for George, Ellis George (Leicester Tigers), George Ford (Leicester Tigers) for Tuilagi (both 77 mins). Not used: Dan Robson (Wasps).

Referee: Jérôme Garcès (France)

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times