Liam Toland: Ireland drained England’s confidence from the off
Peter O’Mahony a key figure, but all were phenomenal, including the Aviva crowd
I asked on Friday about England’s confidence and Ireland’s perception of same. England won nine lineouts when thrashing Scotland. But what would happen should that confidence be undermined?
Coincidentally, England also won nine lineouts against Ireland, but failed to score a try. For many, a lineout’s function is simply to source a throw and launch phased play. Selection of forward packs typically mirrors this need. But this ignores a huge principle of our game: competition for the ball at all times. In Cardiff, Justin Tipuric was allowed to source Welsh lineout ball without any discernible challenge from Ireland. Athletes who can win their own lineout is one thing, but athletes who can win the opposition’s is an entirely different matter.
Peter O’Mahony is that athlete we’ve been arguing for. In fact, in beautiful symmetry, Devin Toner, the tallest man on the pitch, was to lift O’Mahony on 73 minutes and 19 seconds to help Ireland steal a crucial lineout as England mounted sustained pressure in our 22. That Tadhg Furlong, Ireland’s tighthead, was lifting O’Mahony at the front was also incredible; 75 minutes from Furlong is immense at this level, especially as his opposition looseheads managed only 40 each.
Much more happened beyond the lineout, but Ireland were extremely clever in avoiding England’s great stealer in Maro Itoje. Clearly they chose to hit Irish targets that were not near Itoje. And when Ireland sensed their opportunity, they’d get O’Mahony up, as happened after 56 minutes, this time not stealing but, almost better, forcing 6ft 7in Courtney Lawes into a sloppy tap down which Ireland pounced on and poured through, raising energy levels and the roof of the Aviva as the brilliant crowd reacted.
As half-time approached, I began to wonder: 74 per cent of possession and only 10-3 ahead. But then I looked at the other side: 26 per cent possession was all England had enjoyed and their man of the match against Scotland, Jonathan Joseph, hadn’t had one flowing opportunity to test the Irish midfield. Cause and effect was at play as Ireland’s lineout, scrum and outrageous defence nullified the confidence England had gained against Scotland. In many ways, that confidence was built on sand that kept shifting under their feet, and they had nowhere to go in finding an answer. Their lineout didn’t provide crisp attacking possession, their scrum too provided little, so in the tough weather conditions they went back to type with lineout mauls from miles out which were never going to get to where they needed.
In the meantime, Ireland kept asking questions. England’s first scrum after two and a half minutes led to nothing but a spill from Mike Brown off a poor pass from Owen Farrell, but that spill meant Ireland could ask a big question of the England scrum.
After three and a half minutes Kieran Marmion motioned to go right but fired back to Johnny Sexton as Robbie Henshaw targeted the sweat spot of outhalf George Ford’s outside shoulder and Farrell’s inside shoulder, essentially forcing defensive decisions. Likewise, CJ Stander was launched at Ford from a short lineout on 31 minutes. Ford’s team-mates stepped in to defend him, which is what Ireland wanted. Either Ford misses the tackle or English players are sucked out of position in subsequent phases. These questions were subtle and fair tests of Ford’s defence.
Rory Best’s most significant decision all championship was to go to touch on the way to Ian Henderson’s winning try, but he will long be remembered for his remarks to referee Jérôme Garcès regarding his players’ safety. It’s an argument for another day, and yes, backrow forwards should always “rough up” opposition players, but world rugby needs to protect its players from cynical late hits of the kind Johnny Sexton suffered on Saturday. A zero-tolerance approach is required.
I’ve always noted that if you stop Billy Vunipola, you’ll stop England. Twice Vunipola picked from the base of his scrum and twice he was unable to launch an attack. Both times the Irish scrum, with Henderson, was powerful and provided the perfect level of disruption so as not to irk Garcès but to put Vunipola in a poor position, which the ensuing Irish defence maximised in a combination of choke tackles or simply dominating the corridor of power. Henshaw stands out in the Irish defence, but Jack McGrath and Furlong, along with Donnacha Ryan, were phenomenal. In fact, all were phenomenal and, better still, so too was the crowd, in what was the best sustained atmosphere I can recall in the Aviva.
In that mood, any Irish backrow would have revelled, but the balance of roles was interesting and food for thought where all three players were sensational. Aiding them in varying the point of contact, other Irish forwards would receive but often pivot in getting the ball deep and ultimately wide of England’s narrowing rush defence. Jared Payne, who was magnificent for a man on such short lungs, popped up as first and second receiver to aid his outhalf, giving Ireland options both sides of the ruck, which further tested England’s defence; more food for thought.
In the end you can have whatever plan you want as long as you impose it on the opposition, who also have a plan. England were unable to impose theirs when they were tested most severely in their bid for 19 victories and two Grand Slams. Comhghairdeas, Ireland, that was one hell of a Test match.
Finally, thanks to all for Friday night’s sold-out support in the RDS and giving us all such a special memory in #PlayingForAxel.