Some of the reaction to Ireland’s defeat by England last weekend has been crazy, writes
While we have a history in this country of losing the run of ourselves on the back of some great triumphs, likewise we tend to beat ourselves up far too much when things go wrong.
There’s a first for everything, so Joe Schmidt, in his last Six Nations, finally experienced the pain of losing a championship encounter at the Aviva Stadium in his sixth campaign at the helm.
Schmidt has rebuilt the squad since his last major setback in the agonising defeat to Argentina at the 2015 World Cup and accumulated pretty impressive results on the way.
That depth will be tested over the next few weeks, with Devin Toner and Garry Ringrose joining the growing list of unavailable players, but that is precisely what the last three years have been all about: Coping with situations such as this latest injury glut.
In the 27 tests prior to last Saturday, starting with the famous win over New Zealand in Chicago in 2016, Ireland had an 85% success ratio with 23 wins and just four defeats, against New Zealand, Scotland, Wales, and Australia. Their current ranking as the second best side in the game is based on that consistency but, in reality, there is little separating the top four sides — New Zealand, Ireland, England, and Wales — even if New Zealand still deserve top billing.
In the last international window in November, Ireland beat New Zealand, while England came within a point, and a very tight offside decision by the officials that ruled out a try, of downing the All Blacks’ colours seven days earlier.
Wales are also flying high at present and the manner of their comeback against France — 16 points in arrears at half-time — says as much about the character of Warren Gatland’s men as it does about the brittleness and frailties associated the French at present.
Saturday’s defeat for Ireland represented the perfect storm. So much of sport, at all levels, is played in the head. Irish rugby has been riding the crest of the wave for some time and our English counterparts have been getting it in the neck at every turn.
Much was made of the fact that of the 10 contests between the Irish provinces and English clubs in this season’s Heineken Champions Cup, Munster, Leinster, and Ulster won nine, the exception being the draw between Exeter Chiefs and Munster at Sandy Park in round one.
At international level, many of those same England club players were on board when sheepishly accepting the Six Nations trophy in Dublin two years ago after their 13-9 defeat to Ireland cost them a Grand Slam.
When the opportunity presented itself to reverse the pain and spoil Ireland’s party in similar circumstances in Twickenham last season, England failed miserably. That game was over as a contest when Ireland led 21-5 at half-time.
Eddie Jones and his players had enough. Their entire training camp in Portugal was devoted to beating Ireland. The World Cup and preparations for the other big clashes on the immediate horizon, against France and Wales, were put on hold. A line was drawn in the sand. Beat Ireland and everything else will take care of itself.
England set themselves four clear objectives in advance of the game and delivered on every one of them. Jones tasked his players to put kick pressure on Conor Murray, to defend smartly, to win the battle on the floor and in the air, and to be unbelievably competitive at the breakdown. In addition to all that, they played like men possessed.
History shows that when we beat England, it’s normally because we play smarter. They usually enjoy an advantage in the physical stakes, so it has always been necessary for Irish teams to be cuter and more inventive. Think back to that wonderful CJ Stander try at Twickenham last season, fashioned on the training ground and delivered with precision by Tadhg Furlong and Bundee Aki.
Not only did England beast Ireland in the physical confrontations on Saturday but they also out-thought us. That opening try by Jonny May was plotted in advance. Owen Farrell’s restarts were delivered with precision all day and such was the accuracy of his kick-off, deep into the five-metre channel in Ireland’s 22, they knew Murray would have no option but to kick to touch.
That pre-planned opening lineout, delivered over the top for Manu Tuilagi in midfield, generated the early forward momentum that directly led to May’s five-pointer. The touchline conversion from Farrell offered further evidence that England’s captain was in the zone.
Paul O’Connell has spoken in the past of how impressed he was when he first came across Billy Vunipola on the day Saracens destroyed Munster 33-10 at Allianz Park in 2015. Vunipola, fit and injury free, was unplayable that day.
Sadly for England, a whole host of injuries, including a succession of broken arms, has denied him access to international rugby in recent seasons. England suffered in his absence and Saturday provided further evidence of just how influential he and his brother Mako are when both are firing on all cylinders. Vunipola admitted afterwards that England were pretty motivated going into this game, but kept it in-camp. The pain and hurt that Ireland had inflicted in their most recent outings needed to be put to bed. No wonder they looked so pleased on the final whistle.
Just why Ireland appeared so flat and lacking energy is something that needs to be addressed before the trip to Murrayfield. Sometimes, you sense that something is not quite right in the dressing room, but it’s hard to put your finger on it.
Once you find yourself on the back foot and losing all the mini battles, it becomes difficult to reverse the tide. On so many occasions in the past, Ireland have beaten England on the back of the manic intensity and sheer willpower they brought to the fight.
That in itself is insufficient to win games at this level, but when the opposition have it and you fail to match that intensity, odds are you’ll find yourself on the losing side. Given their sheer physical power, England were always likely to threaten Ireland’s multi-phase game and their ability to recycle quickly.
When they supplemented that power with an accurate kicking game, a suffocating defence and an ability to control territory, Ireland were always going to be in trouble. Scotland don’t have that explosive power at their disposal to inflict a similar threat, but Ireland will need to find a way to combat such a challenge when it arrives again, as it inevitably will.
This championship was always likely to be a shootout between Ireland, England, and Wales, with the possibility of a Grand Slam looking extremely challenging for any side to complete. The opening weekend of action has reinforced that prediction, even if, so far, England have looked the most impressive of the six teams on view.
Ireland must now hope for a Welsh victory over England in Cardiff in round three and that we go unbeaten between now and our final game of the championship against Wales at the Principality Stadium. That is well within Ireland’s compass, despite Saturday’s rude awakening.
The immediate challenge for Rory Best and his players is to regroup quickly and get back to winning ways in Edinburgh. Saturday was a setback but, as New Zealand discovered last year when losing to South Africa in Wellington and to Ireland in Dublin, even the best in class can be beaten when their standards fall.