The swagger is back. England trooped off the luscious turf of the Stadio Olimpico on Sunday afternoon, happy in their own skin and beginning to feel good about themselves again.
Within 30 minutes of the final whistle, Eddie Jones was declaring to all and sundry that his focus had switched to their next game in the championship, and that he had already compiled a game plan sufficient to beat Ireland.
Contrast that with Joe Schmidt, who has always been a one-game-at-a-time merchant, when he admitted after Ireland’s defeat in Paris: “I haven’t got my head around too much of what we’ll be looking to do against England, we’ll use the next couple of days to assess who we’ve got fully fit.”
Having witnessed both Ireland’s defeat at the Stade de France and England’s triumph in Rome 24 hours later first hand, the difference in the body language of both sets of players when leaving the field was stark. The Irish looked battered, bruised, and drained, the English buoyant and bouncing after filleting a competent-looking Italian side who were vastly improved from their recent outings at the World Cup.
The difference was that when Italy made a crucial mistake with a misguided attempt at running from deep after an ill-judged quick lineout, England were ready to pounce, and seized the moment.
Sensing the calamitous effect that Jonathan Joseph’s intercept try had on the tiring Italian bodies, England lifted the tempo, to a level that Italy just couldn’t live with.
Crucial in enabling this to happen was an explosive bench, packed with highly impressive young athletes in recent U20 graduates Maro Itoje — an England captain in waiting — Jack Clifford, and Paul Hill. None of them featured at the World Cup and represent the next generation that Eddie Jones is slowly drip feeding into his system.
The difficulty for Ireland was that with key performers Keith Earls, Luke Fitzgerald, Tommy Bowe, Simon Zebo, Mike Ross, Cian Healy, Marty Moore, Iain Henderson, Peter O’Mahony, and Chris Henry injured for the trip to Paris, Ireland’s bench impact was compromised to an alarming degree.
With Sean O’Brien, Dave Kearney, Mike McCarthy, and possibly Johnny Sexton added to that list, things are unlikely to get better any time soon. The fact that Schmidt has only managed to combine the twin ball carrying threat posed by O’Brien and CJ Stander for only 19 minutes of championship action to date has proved really costly.
England now return to Twickenham, the scene of their most recent World Cup torture against Wales and Australia.
Jones has already made a positive impact since his appointment despite the fact that, in terms of personnel, the starting England side isn’t much different to the one that played at the World Cup and retained 12 starters from the side that hammered France in the final game of last season’s Six Nations on Super Saturday.
As a group, however, they appear less burdened, and look to be enjoying themselves. It is telling that their highly influential No 8, Billy Vunipola, who never managed 80 minutes under Stuart Lancaster, has just managed to go the full distance in England’s opening two games against Scotland and Italy.
Jones has backed his primary ball carrier further by naming him as one of three vice-captains and all of a sudden Vunipola appears loved and is playing accordingly. For that reason alone, O’Brien will be a monumental loss for the Twickenham encounter.
While England have every right to feel good about themselves, Jones is smart enough to realise that getting Scotland and Italy first up has bought him time and enabled England to build momentum. A badly hurting Irish side will not be as accommodating, and after that Wales and France could still be hunting championship honours in their own right when they meet England.
Ireland are all but mathematically out of that title race at this stage but, having drawn and lost two games that they could just as easily have won, will travel to London intent on setting the record straight.
If fortune favoured Ireland to some degree in both final day outings when winning the Six Nations in 2014 and 2015, that vital commodity has been in short supply in this season’s tournament.
Not so the French. Their winning penalty awarded against the inspirational Sergio Parisse at the death, to snatch victory in their opening game against the heroic Italians, was harsh in the extreme.
Noves got lucky against Ireland too. His decision to hold his more disruptive scrummaging props in reserve until the second half worked spectacularly well on this occasion but had Ireland taken the chances that presented themselves in the opening half, the game could have been beyond this young and inexperienced French side before Eddy Ben Arous and Rabah Slimani were sprung from the bench.
Jack McGrath had given the French tight head Uini Atonio a torrid time, winning two scrum penalties in the process, but Ireland failed to turn that advantage into points. Unfortunately, Ireland’s suspect scrum has now become a point of focus for all opposition teams.
There is a reason why quality tight head props command so much money in the modern game. If your tight head is under pressure and unable to anchor the scrum, then the entire unit becomes unstable. Mike Ross is one of those undervalued players who is only appreciated when he is not around.
The opening game of this season’s championship was the first time the Corkman missed a Six Nations championship game since 2010. The fact that Marty Moore, his back up over the last two championship winning seasons, was also an absentee only served to make opposition sides concentrate more on the Irish scrum in advance of the opening two games.
The decisive scores in both championship defeats to date stemmed from five-metre attacking scrums when the ball emerged quickly. In both instances, the Irish back row were committed to offering as much weight and support to the tight five as possible, with Wales and France going all out for pushover tries in the prolonged sequence of scrums that had preceded those crucial tries.
Against Wales, Taulupe Faletau reacted in a flash and used his considerable upper body strength to force his way over. On Saturday, Maxime Machenaud responded similarly to a snap channel one delivery to catch a panicked Irish defence.
It didn’t help that the onrushing Robbie Henshaw lost his footing at the crucial moment enabling a gap to open up for Maxime Medard. Tommy O’Donnell had fully committed himself to aiding McGrath in that scrum and that cost him a split second in closing down Medard.
Tadhg Furlong is not the first Irish prop to feel the heat in Paris but he is a young player of immense promise and will have learned more from that punishing sequence of scrums on the Irish line than he would in six months pushing a scrummage machine.
The biggest issue facing Ireland at present is converting pressure into points. This team is expending far too much energy for little reward and that is leaving them drained when the contest enters the deciding phase with 10 minutes to go. That needs to be addressed quickly.
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