Subscriber OnlyRugby

Gordon D’Arcy: Change has to happen before Ireland's trip to Paris

All too predictably, the same pack that failed at the 2019 World Cup could not turn the page

Change needed to happen before Twickenham. Now it has to happen before Paris. Nothing wholesale, nothing knee-jerk, but the time has come to reward in-form Irish players.

Manu Tuilagi's perfectly timed run between the seam of Johnny Sexton and Josh van der Flier, gaining an easy 15 metres before CJ Stander stalled the rampage, put England on the front foot. Tuilagi had already carried nine metres off the first lineout. With three minutes on the clock, Ireland had lost territorial and psychological battles.

The most worrying aspect of Sunday’s performance is key figures did not react to on-field problems. When England abandoned the breakdown, Ireland’s attack continued to run wide off scrumhalf rather than condensing the defensive line by punching holes around the ruck.

It was all too predictable. The same pack, and largely the same team, that failed at the 2019 World Cup could not turn the page.


Bravery and honest endeavour are basic requirements to survive at Twickenham (this also applies to denying France in Paris), but Ireland only ever won at this stadium by being smarter, not bigger. Jordan Larmour catching the ball or Peter O'Mahony claiming lineouts are essential not commendable acts. Same applies to kicking accuracy and passing under pressure.

The team we know so well did what they always do when the pressure rises. They were courageous and England read them like a book. Stander reverted to his programmed roots as a teenager striving to wear a Springbok jersey. He ran hard, straight and on his own into bigger men.

There was next to no out-of-the-box thinking. James Ryan went further than everyone else but basic resistance kept the score at 24-12.

Here was a team that so obviously needed to change key personnel before this match. We worried about it last week. In the same breath, we mentioned why Andy Farrell was rewarding veterans for an impressive victory over Wales.

Farrell's loyalty proved the wrong call. It took the late arrival of Caelan Doris and Ultan Dillane to present the English defence with a picture they had not already sketched on a whiteboard. Sure enough, in reaction to these inroads, John Cooney ran a support line that has yielded most of his tries for Ulster this season.

Only with the result cooked and served came the sight of Irish players seeking to outfox England. There is no other way to win here.

You match them physically and prove yourself a more cerebral athlete.

On both counts, Englishmen prevailed.

Rules of engagement

After that second Tuilagi carry, getting past Van der Flier and straight onto Sexton, the rules of engagement were set. Bundee Aki never got a piece of George Ford (hands-down the most suspect defender on the park).

Ireland huffed and puffed but Sam Underhill blew their house down.

You earn the right to attack on your own terms by what is achieved at the breakdown. That's why those early England grubbers in behind yielded tries for Ford and Elliott Daly. Ireland could claim unlucky breaks in both instances, but it took less than a minute for Tuilagi to make it seem like England were playing on a downward slope.

Maro Itoje nailing Robbie Henshaw behind the gainline made the Saracens lock appear like a schoolboy rag-dolling players two age grades younger than him. The Henshaw try, when it eventually came, was off two passes and a carry between defenders, not into them.

Ryan was picking all the fights and, to my eyes above the halfway line, he was the only angry Irish man. That's not good enough at Twickenham. Seems like everyone else was struggling to survive their individual confrontations. Ryan will be mentally tougher for this experience and he brought a necessary ferocity to clear Tom Curry off Irish ball, but an old head alongside him to settle everyone into the game was sorely missed.

When England have the Ireland game plan well and truly sussed – as has now happened in three successive meetings – somebody needs to reinvent the rules of engagement. But, Ryan aside, the Irish forwards were hanging on.

The veteran halfbacks struggled badly.

Change is guaranteed now. We wanted to see it before this brutal lesson. Now, unfortunately, the most dramatic move by Farrell would be to do nothing; stick to the team that performed against Wales. That would be a significant mistake because the shortcomings of Twickenham can very easily reappear at Stade de France.

After Shizuoka, Tokyo and Sunday, the backrow trio should no longer remain intact. Doris is an irresistible addition but what was the point in the wider Six Nations squad if they are not looked at now?

Instead of stewing over who should make way from Stander, O'Mahony and van der Flier, how about sitting them all down and taking a good look at Doris, Max Deegan and Will Connors?

Rarely available

If Jack O'Donoghue is showing better than any of the Leinster trio at training, put him in, because Andy Farrell is on record stating he trusts his squad. Let's see that put into practice.

I would suggest a change at fullback if Will Addison was fit. He is so rarely available that we cannot keep mentioning him. What a pity, as Addison possesses all the skills Ireland currently lack and England possess in Daly. Jacob Stockdale finished at fullback. Maybe that's the alternative.

This thought process is connected to an unchanged midfield, I presume, until Garry Ringrose’s thumb heals.

All of this links into the same problem. Ringrose was growing into an alternative playmaker against Scotland. Same as Daly, Ringrose can go off-script almost every time he gets the ball because he's got the ability to effect change. And to create tries.

Ireland have needed a second creative player for years and, without Ringrose or Joey Carbery, who fades from view after "further surgery" on his ankle, they continue to lack this vital ingredient.

For better or for worse, the halfbacks are connected to the pack. Iain Henderson will return, Dave Kilcoyne will replace Cian Healy, and I've mentioned the backrow revamp, which amounts to serious change, yet most of it forced.

The coach must choose to make some alterations. Don’t view it as dropping players, see it as rewarding excellence at provincial level with international opportunity.

The disruption caused by the Italy game being postponed puts all the focus on picking the right team to beat France, a result that will define how Farrell's first season as head coach and Sexton's as captain is remembered.

Never mind the public outcry, both men will see two defeats – even in west London and Paris – as a failed campaign.

As much as the halfbacks are dependent on the ball being fished out by forwards, they are responsible for driving Ireland around the pitch.

On both counts Twickenham proved an abysmal afternoon.

Zero resources

There were far too many occasions when England put zero resources into the ruck, instead blocking the channel Ireland wanted to attack, which forced static ball carriers to step inside, where Curry and Underhill were waiting. Ireland shot themselves in the foot by putting too many bodies into the breakdown.

Then they reloaded and emptied more bullets into themselves. Honesty and bravery should be the raw materials of any Irish side. Honestly and bravery kept the scoreboard respectable. That is not where Irish rugby is supposed to exist in 2020. I’m not talking about the public outcry, which is increasingly coming from rational individuals; I am talking about internal standards.

Mostly I am worried about the lack of players who can grab hold of big matches, physically of course, but with street smarts honed over time.

Doris looks like he can climb up alongside Ryan, with hints of similar standards to come from Rónan Kelleher.

Signs of a progressive attack shape against Wales dissolved against a mean English defence.

Surely that's enough standing still when it comes to selection. The Ireland squad need not remove anyone mid-Six Nations but it does need to start seriously investing in the men who will carry them forward.

Asking seasoned players to dramatically alter what they have been doing is the essence of good coaching. Ireland cannot keep engaging in all-out physical contests, especially with an unreliable set piece.

Also, the maul is no longer a reliable weapon. Again, the coaches have plenty to do.

Required impact

Change must be calculated. The reserve props didn't make the required impact, but they were not helped by the time of their arrivals, for a scrum five metres from their own try line. At the same moment England's new front row and Joe Launchbury delivered upon specific instructions to shut the game down.

There is plenty of blame to go around: the halfbacks gave as poor a display as we have seen since the defeat in Cardiff last March. They were not helped by the pack being unable to make a sustained impression. The centres were surrounded while carrying from behind the gainline. The scrum remains a concern. The lineout mostly played it safe with throws to the front.

None of this will change in Paris if Ireland refuse to alter their starting XV. Change was advisable before this moment, now it is inescapable.

The backrow needs a re-jig or, failing that, the personnel must cease their automatic carries into a furnace. Doris and Deegan are programmed differently to Stander and O’Mahony. Suddenly, this weekend’s Pro14 performances by Deegan, Connors and O’Donoghue matter.

The natural reaction under pressure is making Ireland look like an old-fashioned version of themselves – we are not going back there, right?

No, we are not, but rivals on the international stage are moving away from them. Bravery and honestly are the eternal foundations of this house, but new wallpaper is needed. It’s not all bad. If you haven’t seen this or last season’s Ireland under-20s, familiarise yourself with the up-and-coming talent.

This is not a call for drastic action, just to speed up the evolution.