This game had nothing hanging on it, with both sides long out of the title race, but both still wanted to end a disappointing tournament on a high. Ireland wanted to give themselves something to build on under head coach Andy Farrell, whilst England needed a result to renew their confidence after conceding the title too easily, with some really poor performances leading to poor results this year.
The first stages of the game were tightly contested, with neither side giving each other much room to play with, and both were having to rely on small gains rather than breaking through into the space behind. Ireland had a few errors in their early play too, such as not controlling the ball in key moments, and England were also testing them with different kicks, meaning that the Irish back line had to constantly reposition themselves to meet the ball.
However, once they had settled into the game more, Ireland’s first try came from their first meaningful attack. Experienced winger Keith Earls broke through England’s defence and scored, and this try got them on the front foot, pinning England back in their own half, and taking the points which came to them from penalties won. With captain and fly-half Johnny Sexton kicking well, this meant they always had the advantage.
What was particularly notable was that they didn’t force anything, but probed England’s defence when in possession, running into it and pushing England backwards. They were mixing up their play, too, kicking to the wing when there was an opportunity to do so as well as passing around the pitch. This eventually led to a gap being created for back row Jack Conan to score through, so we can see how Ireland had a game plan to help them win.
In the second half, their spatial awareness continued to be good, as they moved the ball around well, mixing up passes and kicks, and created plenty of problems for England at the back. Lock Iain Henderson was really important in this, helping to push England back every time he got forward, and their third try would have come for Earls but for a knock-on from substitute prop Cian Healy in the build-up. However, it again showed Ireland’s threat, particularly with Earls on the field. The winger was always the first to aerial balls, or would tackle the English receiver when he couldn’t get up to win it himself, and it was a really impressive individual performance from him.
Overall, Ireland didn’t have to work too hard, because England were giving them the ball too easily, and their tactics were simply to kick it forward whenever they had the opportunity, thereby putting pressure straight back on England’s defence. It was a really good game from an Irish perspective, and they would have been pleased with the way they played, especially given their poor start to the tournament.
England, however, would not have been pleased with their performance in this game. There were too many things that went wrong for them, such as Ireland’s first try from Keith Earls, which came because England didn’t get back quick enough to stop him running through. The second try also came from a defensive gap which was left open. They just seemed unable to get going, and that allowed Ireland to play as well as they did. England also went back to giving away penalties for simple errors, which gave Ireland the opportunity to continually score points against them. One thing that was particularly problematic for them was the scrum, as they simply couldn’t get it going at all, and Ireland, more often than not, won the ball from these set-pieces.
Therefore, in the second half, we needed to see some positive changes from them, either tactically or in terms of replacements. They did bring on loosehead prop Ellis Genge and hooker Jamie George fairly early on, with the clear aim of helping take control of the scrums. However, the other thing both players bring is an ability to drive forward with the ball, with both capable of finding gaps in the opposing defence. Given this, it did seem that England wanted to be more on the front foot in the second half, looking to take more control of the game.
It should be mentioned that Elliott Daly, who was moved to full-back just before the game started, looked much better in this game, now that he has got his match rustiness out of the way. He looked to advance up the field whenever he got the ball, the same way that Max Malins did last week. This is quite possibly something England have looked to change tactically from their first few games, not kicking as much and instead looking to go through the phases to find gaps. Daly’s runs forward did win England some ground, so it clearly worked in helping them attack with more purpose.
However, they still lacked pace, and brought on centre Joe Marchant for fly-half George Ford in the second half. This allowed them to shuffle players around, with captain Owen Farrell moving to fly-half, and it was hoped that Marchant would add the spark that they were looking for, as he so often does for Harlequins in the Premiership.
It was a game where nothing much went for England, and they never looked like getting anything out of it. Every time they appeared to be gaining some momentum, they gave the ball away with an error, and then found themselves back defending again. This has been a Six Nations to forget for the Roses, and this performance will not have given them much confidence that they have learnt their lessons from the earlier rounds of the tournament.
MAN OF THE MATCH:
Ireland had some really good individual performances from the likes of Tadhg Beirne, who was outstanding as always, and Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray, back together again, who both controlled the game from the middle of the field, whilst Keith Earls was excellent again. However, Iain Henderson was involved in all of their good attacking play and in the middle of everything, with the Ulster captain being brilliant throughout.