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Ireland must kick on to Six Nations classic against Wales

By George Hook

Does the end justify the means? The eternal question was answered in spades at the Aviva Stadium when Ireland beat a hugely disappointing England without ever threatening to play a game that was attractive to the eye.

Kicking dominated the Irish strategy with an astonishing 44 kicks from play. It was a throw back to the 1950s. The kicking, with a few notable exceptions, was average. Both sides just kicked the ball as a first option invariably without putting defenders under pressure.

Ireland now may be the second most efficient team in the world. Only the All Blacks can execute a game-plan with greater concentration and intensity. Joe Schmidt has recognised that defence is the key to the modern game and is favoured hugely by the laws and referees that implement them.

His team do not make mistakes and give the ball away; they deny their opponents time and space by slowing the ball at the breakdown; and crucially the defensive line is almost impregnable. The result is 10 wins on the trot and a probable championship and a possible Grand Slam.

England, despite the pre-match build-up, were simply awful and looked like their unpaid predecessors. Their much-vaunted physicality was cardboard thin and they lost almost every physical collision. Their lineout was disorganised and Joe Marler and Dan Cole were unable to make supposed best scrum in the world an offensive weapon.

The back-row success story was Jordi Murphy whose performance even a fit Jamie Heaslip would have difficulty emulating. As it happened, the replacement may well have been better suited to the kind of game Ireland played.

Internationals are won on small decisions and England's decision to go to the corner rather than take the three points on offer made for different dressing rooms at half time.

Sexton, who is easily the best fly-half in Europe, is now vying for the world title. His work-rate, courage and technique are simply astonishing.

Robbie Henshaw and family will be thrilled with his acrobatic try in the corner but it owed a lot to Conor Murray who realised he had a kick to nothing as the referee had signalled for a penalty to Ireland. The scrum-half's overall game has improved immeasurably under Schmidt, who, one senses, gives his number 9 strict instructions on how to play the game.

Try apart, Henshaw was magnificent in defence and while the jury may be out on his attacking skills, the team is much the better for his physical presence outside Sexton. In the professional era Ireland have never had two better defenders at 10 and 12.

Ireland may become champions of Europe with a game of limited vision. To progress further in the Rugby World Cup than ever before, one has to imagine that something else will be required to beat the giants of the southern hemisphere.

Roll on Cardiff but it may be just like Waterloo all those centuries ago, "a damned close run thing".

Belfast Telegraph

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