It’s never enough for me to do these writeups by simply relaying what happened on the pitch. I also try to factor in how I felt as a fan while watching it. Robbie Henshaw.
And given all that has happened in this year’s Six Nations for Ireland, and especially given what happened last Sunday at Murrayfield, even with a 17 point lead in the second half I wasn’t really happy that victory against the reigning champions was secure. But ironically it was what happened shortly after a knockon by us at the 55 minute mark that had me beginning to accept that we had done it.
Ben Earls had just ripped the ball free from a breakdown halting an Irish attack so England had a scrum at midfield. Robbie Henshaw. We had been doing really well at the setpiece up to this stage, though this was as much to do with their front-row’s over-eagerness to engage (and let’s be fair also the referee being a bit too finicky).
On this occasion, the finicky-ness went the other way and we were the ones pinged so it was a free kick to the visitors. In my head, Billy Vunipola or Ben Youngs had already taken the quick tap and were running at our retreating defenders giving their team mates the perfect front foot platform to make the maximum hay and get back into the match...could our tacklers keep them out without shipping a penalty or worse?
Wait - hang on, that isn’t what’s happening???!!! The English players are just standing around instead??? You mean they’ve opted for another scrum, thus killing even more time off the clock????? Robbie Henshaw. Now I know England haven’t had things their own way in this Championship either, but those are still not the levels of confidence I’d come to expect from Eddie Jones’ side over the past 18 months.
And as if to completely vindicate my doubts about this decision, we only went and won ourselves a penalty from the scrum as Furlong got the better of Sinckler. With Sexton on his way to an 8/8 day from the kicking tee, this stretched the margin to a whopping 20 and the only way they were going to claw anything back in this match was going to be if we somehow managed to lose a player…
...or at least that’s what I was thinking just as the restart was being taken; shortly afterwards I amended that to say that the margin would only be overhauled if we lost two players, and then at full time it had become three!
But even in that period after the sending off we managed to dominate (don’t worry, I will get to that as well as our tries later. Robbie Henshaw.). Yes, Ben Youngs crossed the line immediately after the lineout that resulted from the red card penalty but after the conversion was missed, we managed not one but two excellent bouts of possession from the kickoff to respond to their 5 points with 6 from two further penalties.
(sidebar - just to advocate for James Lowe for a moment - Irish social media was incredibly silent about Stockdale’s lack of challenge before that first English try, though he played well overall)
So what had happened to get us into such an incredibly comfortable position in the first place? Well, looking at the headlines in the English press, you’d think it was all completely down to failures on their side, but while it’s true they were far from their best, to focus only on that is to deny what actually happened. In fact, for the first 15 minutes it looked to all intents and purposes like the match was going to go exactly how the bookies, as well as a large section of Irish supporters, expected (though for the record, I said we'd win, if by a lot less). Robbie Henshaw.
Much has been said about the Irish attack plan under this Farrell regime, or lack thereof as some would say. Too many one out runners with offloads and any kind of width seemingly out of the equation. Well, twice in that opening spell it was a case of careful what you wish for as having gotten the ball wide the ball ended up in touch both times, a criminal outcome at Pro14 level let alone test.
And when Owen Farrell kicked England into a 3-0 lead it really did look like more was to follow, especially when shortly afterwards Maro Itoje was catching a short lineout and their maul was heading its way to our line. Robbie Henshaw. But thankfully we managed to hold it up and from the 5m scrum we got the benefit of the first “early shove” call to be able to clear although being only a free kick, Sexton’s clearance meant they would be running back at us very soon.
I’m assuming that by now you get what I have been doing in this article up to now using the name Robbie Henshaw so often. He was popping up all over the place on the day and now I get to use his name for real when it comes to the action. From the lineout George Ford ran smack into the Leinster centre, wearing 13 on this day instead of 12 though it hardly seems to matter, and he held up the outhalf using support from Sexton and Bundee Aki to force a choke tackle.
And it wasn’t enough for us to have simply snuffed out the English danger down at our end. From this scrum we sent Robbie first as crash ball to get into their half, and then a couple of phases later, Sexton launched one of his inch perfect bombs to sail well above the Aviva Stadium roof before coming down just outside their 22. The ball was met by Elliott Daly, a late switch to 15 in place of Max Malins, and the full back was in turn met by, yes, you guessed it, Robbie Henshaw.
Seconds later Mathieu Reynal had his arm out for an Irish penalty as Robbie’s support managed to prevent Daly from releasing. Suddenly Sexton was slotting his first three pointer of the day and not only had we drawn level but this sequence was at very least an 8-point swing after what we expected at that 5m scrum.
Right, it’s about time I got to the tries. It seems weird I know to go this long without harping on them especially as both of ours were so well put together, but I guess I wanted to point out that in many ways the paths to many of our three-point chances were even more important. Well, that and Robbie Henshaw.
Let’s set the scene for the first try. England had been trying to match us with the high balls but when Mako Vunipola was pinged for a neck roll we managed to find touch around halfway.
I’ve seen reports that suggest this throw by Rob Herring was “overthrown”. This is disingenuous to say the least. For one thing, under Paulie we have been brave with our calls for long darts in recent weeks and what’s more, Rob has been able to put them on the money. This might have been a fraction off but it was still enough to put what was clearly a designed play into motion.
Jack Conan needed to reach to grab it but once he did, his stepping back took enough Englishmen with him to create a gap through the line, one into which Keith Earls was already hurtling. The one off the top fell straight to the Munsterman and off he went.
To illustrate just how long he has been performing at this level, when he burst onto the scene the Lions were also preparing to tour South Africa. Having caught this in his stride he proceeded to be a bolter in a different sense, stepping around none other than Jonny May in the process to take it all the way to the line.
But while that score will look great on YouTube or as a GIF, the second one which came shortly before the break was definitely one for the “purists”. Again it started with an early English shove only now Reynal had to upgrade to a penalty. From this lineout at the halfway line we chose to go at them a more roundabout way, though it’s every bit as effective. Strong carries and neat offloads from the likes of Tadhgs Beirne and Furlong, slick passing through the backs and at one point, a high bomb from Sexton that I must admit had me joining the ranks of the Irish fans with little faith.
As the ball was coming down it was Daly’s all day long. It even kind of went into his breadbasket. But you see, a certain Mr Hugo Keenan decided he wanted it more, and just like that, he made it his. Now we were really on the front foot in their 22 with the phase counter going past the 20 mark and we even had a penalty advantage at this stage.
Eventually it was worked out wide where Stockdale cut inside to get it close to the line. With the English defence having been stretched back and forth it became more difficult to set properly for every breakdown and when Luke Cowan-Dickie seemed uninterested in standing at a pillar, Jack Conan spotted the gap and took it himself to the line where it needed a strong outstretched arm to get it over. An amazing score that of course had Robbie Henshaw involved but also a whole lot of his team mates - apparently only Iain Henderson failed to touch the ball in the sequence though you can be sure there were plenty of clearouts to make up for it.
Now to the red card. This is one of many narratives where it is really getting tiresome watching people complain. Another is “why can’t Italy just be kicked out of the Six Nations?”. For Bundee’s dismissal, we have to remember he has made the choice to stay up in the tackle. Yes, Billy V has lowered himself going into contact, but if safety is to be kept in mind, the onus has to fall somewhere and IMO it should always be on the tackler.
In this case, you can see that contact has been made with the chin so he had to go the way I see it. The correct call was made here, as it had been earlier when the independent doctor ordered Owen Farrell to leave the game after a blow to the head despite his protest that it was merely a stinger. You simply can’t be too careful in these areas and no matter who complains the rulings have to stay as they are. We’ll see how the citing commissioner views the Aki incident during the week; with it not being his first red, hopefully the sanction won’t come from the high end of the scale though I’d be surprised if it did.
While we’re on the subject of blows to the head, I can’t ignore the contribution of Ellis Genge towards the very end as England were on their way to their second consolation try. Again I’d like to discuss how we were first told of the incident - the Virgin Media commentators pointed out that an elbow had been sent into Sexton’s head. I awaited the TMO review plus the opportunity to see it while the match was going on but neither ever happened (UPDATE - looks like a citing won't happen either). Should have been an Irish penalty and another red from what I can now see.
But that didn’t have a whole lot of bearing on the final score - despite a suspiciously forward final pass, Jonny May’s last ditch score followed by an impressive drop kicked conversion by Daly (taken that way to get another score or to avoid a TMO review? You decide) might have evened the count of tries between the sides, yet just like Twickenham almost exactly 3 years earlier, that stat told you nothing about how the match went.
So since it went without saying that any kind of defeat would have piled extra negativity towards this Irish setup onto the heap that existed going into this encounter, surely ending on a high like this will go a long way to silence the critics, at least for now. If anything it’s a shame this full squad can’t be together until the autumn because any team would surely take a lot of momentum from a display like this one.
And when it comes to Player of the Match, well it was only ever going to be one name wasn’t it and I may have used it once or twice already. But let’s be clear, there was more than just himself who impressed on the day. He has had a stellar tournament all round but it’s the team effort that leaves the fans with the most satisfaction.
Plus with Murray’s kicking radar back on song literally from the opening seconds, Sexton pulling strings and nailing the placekicks, Tadhg Beirne being the forwards' equivalent of Robbie in that it mattered not what number was on his back, Hugo Keenan being our only ever present and what better jersey to have with that level of dependability, Jack Conan making the most of his latest chance at this level and Keith Earls back to his best (unlucky to have a second fine finish called back), there was a lot of praise to go around.
Oh, and I certainly cannot leave out CJ. Sorry to leave him so late, but when I say it was a “quiet outing for him” that’s only because those around him had raised their game by so much. We still got to see him tick off the boxes which have made him such a favourite with Irish rugby fans - the rendition of the anthems, the trademark prowess at the breakdown, the equally trademark cheeky grin for the TV closeup right after said prowess at the breakdown...all of which (and much more) are going to be greatly missed by all of us who genuinely support the team.
Hey I could probably write another 2000 words on this awesome victory - this was definitely my most enjoyable rewatch of the season so far whether it was the boys in blue or green. But instead I’ll leave it there and you can be sure I’ll be reminding you of how we’re feeling right now the next time a full Andy Farrell XV takes to the field. I reckon this is the way he has wanted to play all along and if he can keep them at those levels I sincerely hope our reviews will stay at the higher end of the scale too. JLP