England 24 Ireland 12
Ireland’s Triple Crown dreams have been shattered in less than half an hour at Twickenham.
In fact, this overwhelming defeat for the men in green was a sobering reality of Ireland’s present status in world rugby. They have slipped alarmingly down the world rankings. A major new rebuilding process is needed.
Three shocking defensive blunders within the first 25 minutes handed England a platform to destroy Ireland’s hopes. And on the day, England needed no help.
Ireland were already struggling to handle England’s massive physicality. They started like a train, sweeping deep into Irish territory. But not even England could have expected Ireland to make so many errors.
There were blunders in defence, blunders in attacking kicks and blunders in decision making. England were already 7-0 up when Jonny Sexton turned down a kickable penalty at goal. Ireland desperately needed a foothold, some points on the board even at that early stage. Yet Ireland went for the corner and their line-out drive failed. It was completely the wrong decision.
But then, maybe Sexton was still shell-shocked by his defensive nightmare after less than eight minutes. He completely failed to nail Ben Youngs’ dribbled kick to the line, flapping at the ball but failing to ground it. George Ford rushed up to touch down for the try.
But in fairness to Sexton, Ireland should never have been in that defensive position. Jordan Larmour comfortably caught a kick into the Ireland 22 and should have marked it. Instead, he tried to run out of defence, was caught and from that, England scored. It was awful decision making by Larmour.
But what will have shocked Irish fans was how badly rattled experienced halves Conor Murray and Jonny Sexton looked. Both had awful games. Sexton had an easy penalty kick at goal after just 13 minutes but hoicked it horribly wide. Then, just after half time during Ireland’s best spell of the match, their captain badly missed the conversion of Robbie Henshaw’s try.
It was easily the worst kicking display I have ever seen from Sexton. Normally a master at goalkicking, he looked like a novice.
Inside him, Murray was again poor. His weak clearance kick run back by England led to Elliot Daley’s 25th minute try although another defensive blunder, this time by Jacob Stockdale, was the primary cause. Stockdale allowed himself to be shouldered out of the way as Daley rushed through to score.
It was obvious Ireland couldn’t cope with England’s physicality up front which made it a nightmare for Murray and Sexton behind their beaten forwards. Even so, Ireland should have had more composure and direction from both men.
Another aimless kick by Murray cost Ireland 50 metres and soon after, Owen Farrell’s penalty gave England a huge 17-0 half time lead. There was only damage limitation for Ireland in the second half.
In fact, they started brightly and Henshaw’s try gave them hope. But Sexton’s missed conversion was a body blow.
Brian O’Driscoll said afterwards “We have had some big beatings here” and this was yet another. Ireland were out muscled and out manoeuvred. They couldn’t cope with the power of the England pack, a cluster of big men laying down the law ruthlessly. At times, their scrum was monstered by the England eight.
Coach Andy Farrell then made a blizzard of changes, as if to admit that a rebuild is imminent. One of them, Ulster’s John Cooney for Conor Murray, gave plenty of evidence to back my view that Cooney should have been Ireland’s starting No. 9 this season.
He made two searing runs into the England 22 in support of first Caelan Doris and then Stockdale. In those two runs in two minutes alone, he made more metres than Murray managed in the entire game.
But I suspect Cooney wasn’t chosen at the start of the season because new coach Farrell wanted to be conservative and choose the tried and trusted. That’s OK but not when the regular player is clearly not at his best. Murray hasn’t looked a shadow of his old self this season and Cooney’s greater buzz lifted Ireland. He also landed a superb late conversion of Andrew Porter’s injury time try.
There were no consolations for Ireland in this performance. Far too often they were guilty of taking the ball standing still and they seemed to have next to no overall strategy or structure. It was as if England’s physically immense start and their own errors shattered them mentally.
After England’s dominant first half, it was a match without much passion. England were always in control and largely went through the motions for the last half hour once they had gone 24-5 ahead.
But for Ireland, this was a hugely worrying, almost alarming dose of reality. A few individuals, like Bundee Aki Peter O’Mahony, did all they could in a losing cause, endlessly sacrificing their bodies. But in vain.