To beat England at any level it is imperative that you match them in the set piece.
That is and always has been the life blood of their game. When they are matched there, they struggle to cope.
Conversely if they detect a chink in the opposition armoury up front, they waste no time in pressing home their advantage.
That is exactly what happened on Saturday.
Not since Dean Richards marked his debut at No 8 for England with two tries from pushovers and a third emanating from a penalty try at Twickenham in 1986 has an Irish scrum been subjected to such an embarrassing implosion.
I was part of the Irish pack that day and I can tell you there is no worse feeling on a rugby pitch with nowhere to turn and nowhere to hide.
It may well have been St Patrick’s weekend but English rugby chose the occasion to flex its muscle with comprehensive wins for their U20, women’s and club international sides over their Irish counterparts in advance of the main event at Twickenham.
Contrary to rumour and post the World Cup debacle, English rugby is sprouting green shoots and some impressive young talent has been unearthed over the course of this championship.
In many ways this was an accident waiting to happen. With just one prop on the bench at international level for reasons which remain unexplained, Ireland were always going to be exposed if Tom Court was required to put in a protracted shift at tight head. Court is a decent loose head but struggles consistently when asked to perform on the tight head side. Scrummaging is a collective effort and Ireland’s back row contributed little to the cause by continually hanging off when their front five needed a stabilising hand for the entirety of the scrum process.
In many ways Court is the victim here as the requirements of the two positions are poles apart. Even if Ireland had the facility to include an additional prop on the bench, as is standard in the Heineken Cup or Rabo Direct, who would it be? Tony Buckley was the backup tight head at the World Cup but is no longer in the management team’s plans and the next in line is either Stephen Archer or Jamie Hagan, neither of whom start for their province. That is why Ireland were always going to be exposed if anything happened to Ross early in a game.
When he was forced to leave the field before half-time, Ireland’s worst nightmare came to pass.
Even with Ross on board, the Irish scrum was under severe pressure, conceding three penalties in the opening half hour, the first of which was converted by the impressive Owen Farrell from the very first engagement after only two minutes.
I’m not sure when Ross sustained the injury but it was clear he was struggling for a while and attempted to soldier on as long as possible. For a man who takes great pride in his scrummaging, he was left to accept the inevitable and depart the scene. It was downhill from there.
It is amazing how a retreating scrum sucks the life out of a side. All of a sudden Ireland looked like a team playing their fourth test in as many weeks as the error count reached epidemic proportions. In the circumstances, the last thing Ireland needed was to offer England the platform of a five-metre attacking scrum which is exactly what happened when Tomás O’Leary carried over his goal line in the third quarter.
Everyone in the capacity crowd knew what was likely to happen and the inevitable penalty try award from referee Nigel Owens arrived soon after.
Declan Kidney knew that drastic measures were called for well before that decisive score and it was unusual to see him go for radical change only eight minutes into the second half, with Ireland three points in arrears, with a complete change at half-back and the now customary shift of Jonny Sexton to inside centre for Gordon D’Arcy, who experienced a bad day at the office.
Given the difficulties Ireland were enduring up front, it wouldn’t have mattered if Kidney had the facility of springing Jack Kyle, Brian O’Driscoll and Mike Gibson off the bench. The damage was terminal with the lineout also suffering at key moments.
The pity was that Ireland were competing magnificently at the breakdown with several crucial turnovers generated by some excellent work from Stephen Ferris, Sean O’Brien, Rory Best and Donnacha Ryan. Ireland also looked more menacing in attack with Tommy Bowe, Rob Kearney and Keith Earls all working hard in broken play and creating several line breaks.
By way of contrast, Manu Tuilagi and Ben Foden had precious few opportunities while Chris Ashton rarely saw the ball. England weren’t helped in that opening half by the ineptitude of Lee Dickson at scrum-half. He looked completely out of his depth. England compensated by keeping it tight and playing to the pace and strength of Tom Croft, who followed up on his masterclass against France with another impressive outing, and new No 8 Ben Morgan was magnificent once again.
The standard and quality of this game was poor even allowing for the wet conditions, with so many passages of play breaking down due to handling errors. Ireland’s kicking game was impressive with Foden targeted successfully by Sexton early on and Bowe and Kearney regularly arriving to smash the English catcher as the ball fell from the rain sodden skies. The set piece meltdown sucked the life out of this Irish team however and in the end it was only a question of how much the hosts would win by.
So ends what has turned out a disappointing championship for Ireland with that off-colour opener against Wales meaning they were playing catch-up from the start. The hype that followed the triple success of the provinces in reaching the knockout stage of the Heineken Cup never fully translated into the international arena.
Having reached our scrummaging Everest with that dominant performance against Scotland only nine days ago, it is back to the drawing board once again with the stark realisation that beyond Cian Healy and Mike Ross, our front row cover is nonexistent.
That is an ongoing problem with no overnight fix and represents the biggest challenge now for the Irish management — and it is a challenge that is not directly in their control.
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