This was billed as the match of the weekend, with England at home for the first time this tournament, and Ireland arriving at Twickenham on the back of two wins in the opening two rounds of the tournament, and hunting for the Triple Crown, which they could seal with a win here. The game was everything fans could have hoped for, as it turned out.
England’s main tactic in last year’s tournament was to play down the middle before getting grubber kicks into the wider channels for the likes of Jonny May to get onto and score. It was good, therefore, to see them use that again here, but it was also slightly puzzling. This is because Ireland have been strong in attack on the wings, and in fact Andrew Conway has been one of the standout performers so far, whilst Jacob Stockdale is a huge threat to opposing defences. However, I think England used this tactic as a way of ensuring that Ireland had to keep their wingers back defending, and certainly both Conway and Stockdale had quieter games than usual.
Their early pressure meant that when they got the first try of the match, it came from this sustained pressure, and they managed to draw Ireland into them, forcing them to come further away from their line in order to stifle England’s quick play. However, that left the space open in behind the Irish defence, which is all England needed to get their key players in behind. It was another kick on the ball that set the try up too, so that shows just how big a weapon this tactic is for England when they use it well. It was also a strange moment from Ireland’s captain Johnny Sexton, who fluffed his lines when trying to get control of the ball, and George Ford was able to get in and get the ball down, so there was an element of luck about it, but at the same time, England deserved their lead.
Another thing England were doing in the first half a lot was playing the ball whilst running. This sounds like a really basic thing to say, but so often nowadays you see teams just pass the ball up the line whilst standing still, and all that does is to slow the ball down and allow the opposition to defend against it much more easily. It also increases the likelihood of the ball being intercepted. England’s play though was much quicker, and it gave Ireland no time to think, and that was key.
England’s second try came from another kick delivered into the try scoring area, complete with another error from Ireland whilst trying to gather the ball. This time it was Elliott Daly who was the scorer, but Ireland were being massively undone by the bounce of the ball, and it was really costing them.
Jonathan Joseph has been the main talking point of the week, with Eddie Jones deciding to start him on the wing despite the Bath player normally being a centre. However, Jones’ decision was vindicated slightly in the match, as Joseph was exceptional throughout and was an assured presence when England were attacking, and was particularly good at gathering the ball in the air and running forwards. This really helped England, and because Joseph is used to playing in the middle of the pitch, he was able to run there as well is in the wider channels. It was interesting to note this, because he is a player who hasn’t been given a lot of chances to shine in the last few years, and yet he is a player very capable of scoring tries and making ground from deeper positions, so he is still a key player and a useful option for England to have in their ranks.
England needed to get their third try when they did, because Ireland were playing a lot better in the second half, and had got themselves on the scoreboard. Replacement hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie scored tries in the first two games of the World Cup last year, and was at it again here. The try wasn’t anything special, but came from pure muscle pushing forwards and getting the ball down over the line, but the timing of it was significant, because it gave England some momentum back which is what they needed at this time.
The final point to make about England is that they were brilliant at the breakdown. They were constantly forcing the ball back into their possession, and Ireland struggled when England were in these moods. It wasn’t a complete performance from England, but it was certainly a huge improvement on their first two games (admittedly the game against Scotland last time was affected a lot by the weather). They are now in their own hunt for the Triple Crown, after ending Ireland’s hopes, with Wales next on the list for them.
Ireland struggled to get going in the first half, with poor kicking, uncharacteristically, from captain Sexton, and he made several big errors. Their attempts to kick wide and give their wingers something to chase were also too easy for England to catch, and that meant that the Irish could never really gain any ground before England got it back again. It was very strange, but I don’t think they expected England to play as they did in the first half.
It went without saying then that something needed to happen in the second half, and it did. The away side managed to get the first try of the second 40 minutes when they managed to apply sustained pressure onto the English defence, across several phases, and eventually centre Robbie Henshaw found the space he wanted to squeeze over. The try as a whole wasn’t a special one, but it was important in Ireland’s eyes, and they would have welcomed it coming when it did.
However, Henshaw also had a moment of madness, in my opinion, and those of quite a few others, when he went to stop Jonny May scoring a breakaway try. The referee and TMO both decided not to look at it again, but I thought it was an attempt to stop him, and should have been a yellow card. In the slow-motion replays, the ball had quite clearly left May’s hands before Henshaw committed to the tackle, so there was no argument there. However, nothing was given for it.
Mostly, though, Ireland’s lack of luck in the first half was what cost them, and the bounce of the ball was not in their favour at all. Having said that, England deserved their tries, and their lead, although their second half was more turgid and stale, a little bit like we have seen from them so far this tournament, and I think Ireland will know that, in all honesty, they underestimated them a bit in the opening 40 minutes.
They did manage to grab a late second try, when substitute prop Andrew Porter managed to force the ball over the line, but in the end it meant nothing, as England just overall had a little bit too much for them.
MAN OF THE MATCH:
There were some really good performances in the forward ranks, from the likes of Sam Underhill and Courtney Lawes, but I thought Jonathan Joseph, in a position that he isn’t used to so much, had a great game, and was a driving force in England’s first-half dominance, and so he gets the MOTM award for this one.
After another break next weekend, England will be back at Twickenham when they host Wales on Saturday evening, looking to seal the Triple Crown after their wins over Scotland and now Ireland. Meanwhile, the Green Army are also at home, when struggling Italy come to the Aviva Stadium for the earlier lunchtime game on the same day.