If the two turgid contests on Saturday tempered the feeling of exhilaration after the quality served up in all three games on the opening weekend, a Six Nations meeting of Ireland and England invariably takes on a life of its own.
The rain that sheeted down on Ballsbridge from early yesterday morning tempered one’s expectations but once Owen Farrell kicked off for England and this heavyweight contest got under way, it was clearly going to be no place for the faint-hearted.
The physical toll that teams now experience on the international stage has reached an all-time high and this one was no exception, with four of the Irish side shipped off to Santry Medical Centre immediately after the game for MRI scans. With Ireland losing Simon Zebo andJohnny Sexton before the half-hour, it quickly turned into an endurance test of monumental proportions for Ireland. It could have been worse as Cian Healy was very lucky that a clear stamp on one of the England forwards went undetected. He will not be so lucky once the citing commissioner has had time to review the incident.
With Zebo definitely out and Sexton very doubtful for Murrayfield in two weeks’ time, and Healy’s availability now under threat, Ireland’s Six Nations fortunes have taken a distinct turn for the worse.
Despite fielding a team with an average age of just 25 years and 26 days, England were remarkably composed from the outset and not only survived the inevitable Irish onslaught in the key opening quarter but even found themselves in the lead.
This game represented a watershed moment for both teams and a chance to pull clear of the chasing pack given the failure of France to win any of their opening games. England are now in the driving seat and have made notable strides under the impressive Stuart Lancaster. This win represents yet another step on the road for this evolving group as the majority of their recent statements were written in the familiar surrounds of Twickenham.
With only five survivors from the side that lost the Grand Slam in Dublin — but won the championship — two years ago they carried very little baggage and a clear understanding of what was required to win this type of encounter.
Given that it is 10 years since they experienced that feeling, it says much about their confidence and stability at the moment.
That mental fortitude was shown to best effect during the crucial period after England flanker James Haskell was yellow-carded on 56 minutes. Ireland had steam-rolled their way back into the game, recognising there was serious gains to be made through their lineout maul which had England under all kinds of trouble. Their scrum also settled down after some early wobbles and was just beginning to impose itself.
The fact that England, galvanised under the inspirational Chris Robshaw, emerged from that 10-minute period six points better off, offered them the lift they needed to close out the game. It also helped that they were able to increase the physical pressure on Ireland even further with the introduction of Courtney Lawes, Mako Vunipola and Dylan Hartley off the bench. Lawes was immense in his brief period on the field before being forced off after smashing Rob Kearney in a tackle.
Ireland too had their moments and encouraging periods of set-piece dominance but this was the day when the loss of Paul O’Connell and Stephen Ferris hurt as it reduced the options available off the bench. Peter O’Mahony and Sean O’Brien did everything to drag Ireland back into the contest but England were unflappable. There was a composure and clarity about their game right from the outset, a product of good preparation and, if anything, Ireland were the far more tentative and suspect-looking outfit in the opening period.
It didn’t help that they fell foul to the pet peeve of referee Jerome Garces — players who fail to roll away after the tackle — and captain Jamie Heaslip was particularly careless in conceding three first-half penalties. That was exactly what England were playing for and Owen Farrell didn’t disappoint in doing an imitation of what Jonny Wilkinson used to do for so long in that coveted No 10 England shirt. Garces was consistent with his interpretation yet Ireland failed to heed his promptings.
England learned from the manner which Wales squeezed Ireland for the majority of the second half in Cardiff last week and despite the adverse conditions, recycled at pace and committed numbers to rucks. That is exactly the way they played for the vast majority of their last two outings against New Zealand and Scotland and they didn’t allow the difficult conditions to alter their approach. In addition their kick-chase game was superb, constantly isolating the receiving Irish player and forcing him into error. The number of times Ronan O’Gara, who was lacking match sharpness not having played since mid-January, and Kearney were left fending for themselves under the high ball was alarming. Credit Kearney having the presence of mind at one stage to place his hand on the touchline and concede a lineout rather than a penalty for not releasing.
This was a day whennothing really went right for Ireland. One can only wonder what was going through Brian O’Driscoll’s head after the birth of his first child in the hours before kick-off and then having taken another heavy blow to his ankle, being unable to leave the pitch with Eoin Reddan the only fit back left on the bench.
If the victory in Cardiff took a heavy physical toll, one can only imagine the psychological damage this defeat to a talented but comparatively inexperienced English side will have on Ireland. Factor in the uncertainty surrounding Sexton, Zebo and Healy and all of a sudden the trip to Edinburgh looks anything but comfortable. That is the nature of the Six Nations; just ask pre-tournament favourites France.