Belfast Telegraph

Home Sport Rugby Six Nations

Chris Henry: Six Nations opener just was not good enough, but all is not lost for Irish

Hit for six: Johnny Sexton contemplates Ireland’s Six Nations defeat on Saturday by England
Hit for six: Johnny Sexton contemplates Ireland’s Six Nations defeat on Saturday by England
Chris Henry

By Chris Henry

It usually starts building about 48 hours before the game, long before you're stood shaking hands with the President and waiting for the anthems.

Rugby round up Newsletter

Game previews, plus expert insights and exclusive commentary from the Belfast Telegraph sports team.

The routine is almost a ritual now, starting with the move from Carton House to the Shelbourne Hotel on the Thursday. That late afternoon, the traditional squad trip for pancakes, is the last window of calm. From captain's run on a Friday morning the energy is bubbling away, building up inside you and come waking up on Saturday, kick-off feels like it can't come soon enough.

Whether you're the type that has the headphones on and the head down or the sort to be looking around you and taking it all in, during that moment coming down the stairs of the hotel, fans swelling the lobby and everyone down to the hotel staff clapping you onto the bus, you feel 10ft tall, ready to take on all comers while the bus snakes through the crowds towards the Aviva.

There'll have been a change to that long-established routine this Saturday - renovations at the team hotel mean they'll have had to slip out a side exit rather than through the fans at the main entrance - but it was England who arrived ready to knock down walls.

It was an odd one to hear Conor Murray say afterwards that Eddie Jones' side just came in more pumped for whatever reason.

It certainly didn't seem like the usual energy was there from Ireland and they were left gobsmacked by the intensity of the game.

The big players didn't have big games.

Contrast that to England. We were all guilty of it, comparing the teamsheets and thinking Ireland would have the edge all over the park, but their key men all showed up.

Perhaps not enough stock was put in them coming within a centimetre or two of beating the All Blacks last November, or maybe it was simply a case of having poked the bear too often, but they were more than good value for the win.

Stats can be misleading in rugby - just look at how many categories Ireland edged on Saturday - but there was no getting away from England making five times the dominant tackles of their hosts. We're used to seeing James Ryan, Cian Healy and Tadhg Furlong get that extra metre or two after contact but there was none of that in a game that would have been tailor-made for Iain Henderson.

But it really was a colossal performance from England.

The Vunipola brothers were great while Manu Tuilagi was a monster, four-and-a-half years since his last Test start.

England definitely got the better in the back-row battle too, slowing up Ireland's ball and knocking them out of their rhythm. CJ Stander was obviously playing with an injury, and Dan Leavy out with one of his own, but it was a game crying out for the consistency of Jamie Heaslip. He's someone that any team would miss and Ireland probably still do more than people realise.

Joe Schmidt is used to making opposition coaches feel like he no doubt did during his own review yesterday and it'll be fascinating to see the response this week.

Scotland will be thinking there's no better time to play Ireland after a week like that. They'll have expected to beat Italy but they're riding high on the wave of a historic season in Europe for their two sides while they've shown they're a match for most teams at Murrayfield.

Getting the balance will be the key for Ireland. I think there'll be changes, and there are any number of possibilities, but I doubt they'll be wholesale.

If energy was a problem on Saturday, you figure that Sean O'Brien is a must.

He did well when he came on and he's a guy that always brings intensity. He's a talker - even if it doesn't always make sense to everyone - and he lifts those around him.

John Cooney was someone who showed up in difficult circumstances, while Jordi Murphy, Jack Conan (fitness permitting) and Chris Farrell are all players who are capable of adding a different dimension too.

All big calls, and you'd never expect to see all of them, but one or two could freshen things up and also serve to get players who need them some minutes.

Ireland can still have an impact on this Championship. One game, no matter how gut-wrenching, doesn't change that.

But another slip and it really will be time to start looking towards the World Cup.

Belfast Telegraph


From Belfast Telegraph