Ireland’s hopes slain as Slade and England secure bonus-point win
England started with an early try and never relented against an out-of-sorts Ireland
No-one quite saw this coming, and certainly not to this scale, but as good as England were, Ireland were strangely off colour. The net result was a bonus-point win and an emphatic opening statement to the Six Nations by Eddie Jones’s team.
At a stroke, Ireland cannot win historic back-to-back Grand Slams but the scale of this defeat – a first in 13 matches and first at home in six championships under Joe Schmidt’s watch – also leaves them with a proverbial mountain to come in order to even retain the title.
Amid the giddy prospects for this Irish squad’s World Cup hopes, this assuredly served as a serious reality check, not least – with New Zealand or South Africa in mind – as Ireland were a little physically bullied.
They were also made to look somewhat pedestrian and one-dimensional. After 18 wins in their previous 19 Tests, home team and crowd alike were stunned, and rarely have this team seemed so rattled; their performance degenerating into a series of unconvincing attacks deep inside their own territory.
In so many areas where they have been so efficient they fell short, be it their carrying, their exits, their passing, their kicking game and more besides. All their primary ball carriers struggled to generate any momentum and even Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton, on the occasion of their 50th Test start together, were as culpable as anyone.
England brought bulk but smarts too. They won the collisions continually, but played territory too, while exposing Robbie Henshaw’s lack of experience in the backfield in a revamped Irish back three.
The final scoreline scarcely tells the tale of England’s supremacy, for Ireland were indebted to England’s ill-discipline for trailing by a mere 10-17 at the break. The visitors conceded five penalties to one, while also having Tom Curry sinbinned for a late hit on Keith Earls, and were lucky not to have Maro Itoje binned as well for a hit on the same player.
But otherwise, England’s defence was quite comfortable. Their line speed was good, enabling them to tackle Irish carriers behind the gainline, and though they were attributed with more missed tackles, they assuredly made more impact hits, with Mako and Billy Vunipola to the fore.
It was a barometer of England’s work across the gainline and in the contact area that Owen Farrell seemed to have altogether more time on the ball than Sexton.
England’s selection had suggested they were going to mix their customary heavy artillery with some pace out wide, and sure enough the combination yielded a swift dividend.
Back for his first Six Nations game in six seasons, Manu Tuilagi was immediately brought into action at literally the first available opportunity when he was the intended target from Jamie George’s first, long throw, trucking it into the Irish midfield. England got their heavy runners rumbling, Kyle Sinckler and the Vunipolas, and when Billy managed to offload the ball after he was held up, Farrell threw out a pacey, miss-two flat pass which also beat Earls’s attempt to cut it off. Elliot Daly then drew Henshaw and put Jonny May over in the corner. Farrell even landed the touchline conversion.
England’s ill-discipline brought Ireland back into the game when, after a nice starter play off a lineout when Sexton tipped the ball on to Bundee Aki, Sinckler was penalised for not rolling away and Sexton nailed the penalty.
Ireland needed that.
Then Curry needlessly followed through late on Earls after the winger kicked downfield. Ireland upped their tempo and intensity, and sought to maximize their extra player by using the full width of the pitch in both directions.
But they were undone by James Ryan failing to gather Tadhg Furlong’s tip-on and Josh van der Flier’s failure to hold onto a loose long pass off the deck by Aki. Itoje then escaped with a mere penalty after jumping, turning and clattering into Earls’s knees first with the ball still in the air from Ben Youngs’s box kick. It was poor officiating by Jérôme Garcès and his TMO Glenn Newman.
From Ireland’s fourth attacking possession, after an electric counter by Jacob Stockdale, Sexton’s chip led to Billy Vunipola playing the ball from an offside position and rather take on the straightish kick for three points, Ireland went to the corner.
From Rory Best’s throw to Ryan, the pack engineered a well controlled drive and after Van der Flier and CJ Stander were held up short Cian Healy – with an advantage of Best latching on – showed remarkable leg strength to burrow virtually under Mako Vunipola’s tackle. Sexton landed a fine conversion.
However, England’s kicking game exposed the positional play of a revamped Irish back three and especially that of Henshaw, who sliced a left-footed kick out on the 22. When England switched back to Ireland’s left flank, Daly chipped in to space behind Stockdale, who attempted to gather one-handed but lost control of the ball when hit by Nowell, for Daly to pounce for the softest of tries.
Farrell converted and England came knocking again. Earls and Van der Flier appeared to have seen out the danger when driving Nowell into touch but, less than three minutes from the break, Best’s throw was crooked.
It was a costly mistake, although it could have been costlier as from the ensuing scrum Peter O’Mahony and Stockdale kept Billy Vunipola out on the blindside and after Mako Vunipola burrowed over when tackled by Healy and Stander, his ‘try’ was ruled out for a double movement.
Farrell’s penalty, with the last kick of the half, made it 17-10. In truth, it could have been worse for Ireland and it felt like a relative let off.
England lorded possession and territory in the third quarter and were rumbling ominously through the phases inside the Irish 22 nearing the hour when Ringrose made his read and hit on Farrell.
After the knock-on by the retreating Slade, Ireland hammered at the English defence from the scrum and Sinckler’s high hit on Ringrose – at least worthy of a review – enabled Sexton to reduce England’s lead to 17-13.
England withdrew George Kruis and lost Itoje to injury, before Devin Toner also departed gingerly with what seemed like a leg injury. After Slade forced a loose pass from Henshaw after Ringrose’s high pass, Sexton berated himself for playing the ball on the deck in a ruck. Surprisingly though, Farrell missed the 42-metre penalty.
Ireland were desperately seeking something – too much so given they were still within four points – and when Ringrose carried hard into contact he spilled the ball when tackled by George. From the scrum, England conjured a set-piece try that effectively sealed the deal.
Slade’s skip pass from right to left for May looked to go forward, but when May chipped ahead Slade showed good pace to gather and score in the Irish in-goal area.
Garcès asked Newman to check Slade was not in front of the ball when May kicked ahead, but not for the pass. The try stood and though he missed the conversion Farrell landed an ensuing penalty when Ireland passed their way into trouble and Courtney Lawes lined up Ringrose for Curry to latch over the ball. That rather summed up Ireland’s day.
Now leading 25-13, England could afford to press even harder in defence, Slade rushing up to cut out Sexton’s pass off slow ball inside the Irish 22 to pick off the intercept and the bonus-point try.
In the 80th-minute John Cooney, on his brief Six Nations debut, was alert to Seán Cronin’s pace to be on his side for the hooker’s break for a try which marginally reduced the scale of the beating on the scoreline.
It will be interesting to see where Ireland go from here.
SCORING SEQUENCE – 2 mins: May try, Farrell con 0-7; 11: 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: Sexton pen 13-17; 66: Slade try 13-22; 70: Farrell pen 13-25; 76: Slade try, Farrell con 13-32; 80: Cooney try, Sexton con 20-32.
IRELAND: Robbie Henshaw (Leinster); Keith Earls (Munster), Garry Ringrose (Leinster), Bundee Aki (Connacht), Jacob Stockdale (Ulster); Jonathan Sexton (Leinster), Conor Murray (Munster); Cian Healy (Leinster), Rory Best (Banbridge/Ulster) (capt), Tadhg Furlong (Leinster), Devin Toner (Leinster); James Ryan (Leinster); Peter O’Mahony (Munster), Josh van der Flier (Leinster), CJ Stander (Munster).
Replacements: Jordan Larmour (Leinster) for Earls (half-time), Quinn Roux (Connacht) for Toner (57 mins), Dave Kilcoyne (Munster) for Healy, Andrew Porter (Leinster) for Furlong (both 62), Seán O’Brien (Leinster) for Stander (65), Seán Cronin (Leinster) for Best (68), Joey Carbery (Munster) for Ringrose (73), John Cooney (Ulster) for Murray (77).
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 Itoje (54), Harry Williams (Exeter Chiefs) for Sinckler (65), Chris Ashton (Sale Sharks) for Nowell (74), Luke Cowan-Dickie (Exeter Chiefs) for George, Ellis Genge (Leicester Tigers) for M Vunipola, George Ford (Leicester Tigers) for Tuilagi (all 77 ). Not used: Dan Robson (Wasps).
Referee: Jérôme Garcès (France)