As Irish fans we all remember how we felt winning the Grand Slam in 2018, right? Of course we do. Not only was it a slam, but it was also won emphatically at Twickenham on St Patrick’s Day weekend. It surely doesn’t get any better than that, right?
You might think that because the theme of this piece is Saturday’s match at the same venue which didn’t quite go the same way, those opening lines mean my overall approach amounts to “my how far we have fallen” but you’d be wrong.
What I’m actually getting at is the way we lost a lot of that Grand Slam goodwill after what happened at RWC2019. Of course, the outcome in Japan was disappointing, but many were actually reaching back to that 2018 Six Nations success and saying “we peaked too early”.
Now to be fair, there is an element of truth in that, although I certainly draw the line at taking any credit away from the Irish setup for that achievement. So to bring the “peaked” argument to its logical conclusion we should go on to say that in preparation for 2023, it’s more important that we look ahead and develop a squad that is more likely to peak at the right time, and if we do this, then we’ll need to be a bit more understanding when it comes to results in the meantime.
There we have the context I’m looking for. England were at a low point in Eddie Jones’ tenure in 2018 and have steadily risen since, and although even they haven’t quite achieved perfection yet (falling short with Grand Slams & RWC) they are still a top tier professional test set up that knows what they’re about and it clearly showed on Saturday.
For our part, we were missing several key players. We were also complying with the narrative from RWC2019 by trying out a new captain and bringing in a load of new talent, some having come through the academy ranks, others by residency and heritage means which were no less legitimate.
All of which means that while disappointment in losing to England is understandable, if we fail to see the very obvious positives and mitigating factors from the day’s rugby then we might as well concede that in our eyes the boys in green literally can’t win.
“I actually think he deserves to stay on, I would have brought Earls off and put him on to the wing, I think he’s been brilliant in the air, he has an energy about him and you need to get minutes under his belt; Keith Earls is on his 86th cap he doesn’t need experience.”
Maybe I’m following the wrong people on Twitter but I saw absolutely nothing like the above opinion expressed on my timeline as Hugo Keenan was withdrawn from the fray in the 58th minute. It took former England player Danielle “Nolli” Waterman to say it in the Channel 4 commentary box and she was spot on.
It’s possible the plan all along was to give Earls 80 minutes as part of his road back from injury but that’s not my point. We badly need this kind of constructive outlook and I’m going to do my best to bring it as I write up the match.
Of course when our opponents score two quick tries it looks to all intents and purposes like there’s a drubbing on the cards, yet the fact remains it didn’t happen, so I’m going to start by skipping to the so-called “Championship minutes” either side of halftime because I feel that is where the result-defining action took place.
We begin with an English lineout in our 22 on 35 minutes. This was a scenario where we thought we’d be crushed on the day. 5 metre lineout, maul, Jamie George try. It was always going to happen wasn’t it? Well, it didn’t. We actually ushered this particular situation very well - yes, I know they found other ways to get past us, but let’s stay here for now.
So after having been beaten to a lineout by Maro Itoje not long before, James Ryan tried to return the favour at this one, in exactly the same fashion no less. But whereas Maro’s grab got only ball, James’ also got some arm. Fine margins. Not the first time we failed where our opponents had succeeded and certainly not the last.
It also wasn’t our first penalty conceded so referee Pascal Gauzere asked Ryan to have a word with his players, a “warning” of sorts. And from the next lineout, our maul defence clicked yet again to kill the ball and earn a scrum, and from that set piece (another where we feared annihilation) we won a penalty.
Not long afterwards with the clock nudging towards halftime, England actually make a mistake themselves as Joseph sliced a kick into touch on the full. This lineout we won well, and set off on a series of phases. At one point, James Ryan managed one of his trademark gainline busting carries, yet so wary was Jamison Gibson-Park of the English defence, he failed to capitalise and we retreated back into a more routine attacking pattern.
This was a mistake in my view. Many criticise the way we kept kicking the ball but I reckon once Ryan put us on the front foot that was when we should have turned their defence by putting one over the top whether it was by 9 or 10. Eventually Cian Healy failed to clear out Underhill at a breakdown and yet another Irish attack was called to a halt.
clearly neck rolled by Jamie George. Let’s face it we all have our coloured goggles on but there’s no disputing this. Yet everyone sees it but the four match officials, and with the play continuing and resulting in another turnover, that becomes the topic of choice over the break.
So there’s 40 minutes left and the scoreline is “only” 12-0. It felt like it should’ve been more, but it wasn’t. However depressed we were at home, Ireland were still in this match and I dare anyone to suggest they didn’t come out after the break playing like they knew this. On our first possession, we start to show some innovation as Peter O’Mahony dribbles one up the touchline and retrieves it himself.
The series builds to over a dozen phases - yes, England are twin-tackling the bejaysus out of us, much like they had been all along, but eventually Ross Byrne has time to go to his boot and puts one into their 22. On another day it would have rolled into touch, but it was never doing that on this day, especially as it was Johnny May doing the tidying (had I been writing this as an England blogger my title would probably be “May’s Day”).
His clearance only goes as far as Keenan, who gets it with acres of space ahead of him. In keeping with how our day went (at least IMO) he chose exactly the right option, going for territory in the opposite direction, only with the wrong execution, picking out, surprise surprise, the same Johnny May.
This leads to another kick from the England winger that’s less than perfect, in that it rolls over our try line for a 22 drop out. Yet despite our having won the ball back following the restart, Quinn Roux is penalised for pushing Tom Curry off the ball and despite all our early pressure, Owen Farrell is suddenly gifted the opportunity to stretch his side’s lead over three scores. Absolutely no way can Roux be blamed for this IMO, in fact several of our penalties stemmed from our attempts to bring the very physicality I was looking for in my preview.
We did really really well in that ten minute spell, yet still managed to lose it by 3-0. And yes, we did make mistakes in that time, but so did our opposition and I believe that for our sakes it’s vitally important to appreciate that had certain decisions and bounces of the ball gone the other way the outcome could have been very, very different.
But it’s probably about time I held back on the silver linings for a paragraph or six. Because there’s no escaping that earlier ten minute spell where we fell twelve points behind. And the recurring theme of our failures in this time was, of course, our lineouts.
It started with a dart at halfway that was not only overthrown but also called not straight. Having also begun this half relatively well, this is where we began to give England a path forward. They won a penalty at a scrum shortly afterwards, and there they were with a lineout in our 22.
Like I said earlier, we did extremely well throughout the match holding them out in this situation but with an experienced head like Owen Farrell pulling the strings, they were quick to go for a plan B and again, while Ross Byrne’s crossfield’s kicks were often a shade off target, this one by Faz to May was inch perfect and he was able to beat Keenan to the jump and open the scoring.
But of course nobody is ever going to remember that try are they. It’s all about the next one. And what makes it even more facepalming for Ireland is that it actually came from an attacking lineout of our own. Once more we went for the long throw, once more it evaded the intended jumper, and once more, England were able to pounce.
Fair play to their quick thinking putting it through the hands getting it to May but once he had it, it was all him. Gassed beyond the flailing challenge of Farrell, easily found a gap through our transitioning rearguard, and, well, JGP put in a spirited attempt to stay with him but it was never happening was it. As did Stockdale deserve the benefit of the bounce from his kick forward in 2018, so did May this time. Squint your eyes and forget opponents for a second and you’ll see this was a quality, quality score.
Yet another scrappy lineout at the 50m mark led to a penalty that allowed Farrell to stretch the lead to 18 but before everyone bears down on Rónan Kelleher for the blame, it needs to be noted that the set piece continued to malfunction when Rob Herring was providing the service. It was part systems error, part standard English bullying led by the superb Maro Itoje, who did many things to deserve Player of the Match but probably clinched it with his emotive celebrations of every minor victory from start to finish.
And while of course we need to consider that with an 18-0 cushion it’s very likely that the English were happy enough to stay in a low gear for the rest of the afternoon, there was absolutely no question of anything close to capitulation happening on our part.
Then around the 60 minute mark we had almost a carbon copy of what happened just before halftime. Gibson-Park, Ross Byrne and James Lowe were all absolutely hammered by Irish fans afterwards for their positional kicking. If I say that was harsh you’ll probably think that’s my blue goggles talking, so be it. But I still think that while some went wrong, others were just an inch or two from being perfect and there was one in particular from Lowe that actually was a thing of beauty, rolling into touch in England’s 22.
Again we turned up the heat on England’s maul after a lineout resulting in a choke tackle. Then we won a free kick at the scrum. Next it was a penalty. Then, surprise surprise, we actually secured an attacking lineout and Herring got on the end of the maul to break away and set off towards the England line, where he was met by his opposite hooker, Jamie George.
But not only were those two potentially citable challenges completely missed (while Roux’s was actually called back by the TMO), the English actually shipped a decent amount of penalties themselves in the second half so I was curious as to why Owen Farrell wasn’t given similar advice at any stage to talk to his own players.
Eventually our work trying to crack the English D paid dividends. First Ross Byrne grubbered one through nicely for Chris Farrell who was brilliantly grabbed at the line by Henry Slade to hold him up. Then shortly after Billy Burns' introduction he opted for one just over the top of the onrushing tacklers and it fell perfectly for his Ulster team-mate Jacob Stockdale who finished strongly and took the dreaded duck egg off the board once and for all.
I’ll say it outright just in case there’s any doubt - England definitely deserved to win, and we definitely made mistakes at times. But I couldn’t let this writeup go without pushing back on the ridiculous, overly pessimistic reactions from Irish observers, and not all of them on Twitter either; Eddie O’Sullivan for one was pretty brutal at full time.
What we need to do is look at what lies ahead - home matches against Georgia and probably Scotland before a full Six Nations campaign in the new year. Maybe the way we square up to both England and France at home will give us a better indication of the direction in which Andy Farrell’s Ireland is going.
I know everyone knows players they think will perform better or styles of play they think will work better and that can be what makes all of this harping worthwhile, but if we really are going to give them until 2023 to find their level, then need to let them fix what went wrong, because those things are fixable, and we need to let them be encouraged by what went right, because those things did actually happen.
There’s an amazing crop of talent coming through our ranks to join the vast experience we already have. Let’s give them the space they need to put it to good use. JLP