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Comment: England's bigger team won the Dublin battle as Ireland left to mull over Six Nations reality check

In charge: England’s Maro Itoje celebrates as his side dominate Ireland on Saturday
In charge: England’s Maro Itoje celebrates as his side dominate Ireland on Saturday

By Vincent Hogan

They delivered both Vunipola brothers to the mixed-zone like circus strongmen invited to explain their gift for ripping decks of cards in two or snapping heavy chains with rib cages.

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It was fitting, because on a frigid Dublin day suitable for a national wake, nobody needed rugby's intelligence services to conduct a forensic examination of Ireland's first home Six Nations defeat under Joe Schmidt. The questions England asked of his team had been uniformly blunt and, in the end, rhetorical even.

Size matters when there's little disparity in skills of execution and, so, the bigger team won.

Eddie Jones might be a melodramatic coach with a name for the unorthodox, but he clearly has a grasp of basic physics too. And Ireland's unpardonably rude act of beating England two years in succession infused his team with a ferocity that reverberated through the big silver bowl on Lansdowne Road.

"We were pretty motivated for today, but we just kind of kept it in camp, kept it to ourselves," said Billy, the younger of the Vunipola boys.

And so England's biggest Dublin win since Martin Johnson's show of obstinacy muddied President McAleese's heels served to rewrite so many of our assumptions about international rugby's changing hierarchy. Ireland were beaten up, maybe even "bullied" as Schmidt himself alluded to.

Match statisticians use the expression 'dominant tackles' and, with an hour of Saturday's contest run, the figure in that category read England 37; Ireland 7.

You didn't need a taste for rugby's nerdish side to recognise what those figures communicated. England's simple lust for contact never deviated. To the end they were, essentially, going after Ireland.

With 75 minutes on the clock, Jordan Larmour fielded a high ball only to be nailed in an eye-blink by Tom Curry.

Seconds later, Henry Slade made that intercept on a looping Jonathan Sexton pass to get England their bonus point try.

The battle was already settled then, but the appetite to squeeze Ireland's jugular wasn't yet quite fully sated. Some time back, Billy Vunipola declared it England's intention to dominate this game physically.

"But you never know what happens until someone punches you in the face," he declared now in the mixed-zone.

Asked about the ferocity of their defence, big brother Mako was equally candid.

"If you think about it, defence is just a mindset," he declared.

"You can have the best systems in the world, but if you don't want to get off the line and hit someone, they're always going to break you down. We knew we had to step up, front up."

No need to intellectualise a whupping then. The bigger, meaner team simply won. And for some of us more seasoned observers, maybe there's always been something oddly disorienting about an Irish rugby team being expected to beat England anyway. The very effrontery of that word: expected.

Schmidt's men were 1/3 with many bookies on Saturday morning; the handicap was eight points. All around Lansdowne Road you could detect just the faintest thread of a condition maybe best described as forgetfulness.

"That was kinda strange," agreed Billy Vunipola. "There was less pressure on us than probably we've ever had before."

Within 92 seconds of the start, we could see that, with Jonny May scooting over. And that left flank was England's early zone of focus.

Keith Earls was quickly on the wrong end of two purposefully glaring physical mismatches, with first Curry (for which the English open-side was sin-binned), and then Maro Itoje, with the referee rejecting Rory Best's plea for a video consultation.

Earls didn't reappear for the second-half, by which point the English were still seven points clear and, frankly, more comfortable than that margin implied.

It could have been worse, with Best's crooked lineout throw just five metres from his own line resulting in an English scrum, from which Mako Vunipola looked to be over only to have the try ruled out for a double-movement.

Already playing advantage for an Irish offside, Jerome Garces gave England the penalty instead, Owen Farrell converting.

Then, just 32 seconds after the resumption, a retreating Bundee Aki ran straight into Robbie Henshaw. Whatever the half-time directives, Irish minds were overheating here.

Yes, England kept playing to that catch-all euphemism 'on the edge', - Kyle Sinckler late on Garry Ringrose; Courtney Lawes similarly so on Sexton. And that physical press took its toll, with Ireland's efforts to move the ball endlessly panicked and imprecise.

Had they, as Schmidt observed, been simply "beaten up" here? Tadhg Furlong wasn't inclined to deny it.

"Yeah, that's probably pretty fair and accurate I would say," acknowledged the Wexford man. "But it's hard when you're out there, especially as a front five forward, you spend a lot of time rucking and you might be on the ground. You don't see a whole lot of the game.

"You know, they're physical, they have a lot of Lions in that pack. They're good ball carriers, good modern-day forwards. Maro Itoje goes off and Courtney Lawes comes on. Joe Launchbury is their 25th man! You know, it's physical, it's attritional."

Sufficiently so, apparently, to leave CJ Stander with a fractured cheekbone and eye-socket.

On Saturday, the bigger team won the fight. When they use their heads, they usually do.

Belfast Telegraph


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