Italy showed two weeks ago that when England are taken out of their comfort zone, they are vulnerable, writes Donal Lenihan.
Ireland’s first ever taste of Friday night fever — Six Nations style — is one that, for all the wrong reasons, will stick in the minds of the players and management for quite a while.
Despite playing well below par in the opening three rounds, England kept their side of the bargain in teeing up a winner-take-all final Saturday at the Aviva Stadium. Now they arrive chasing all kinds of records and the additional comfort of having the championship already in the bag after hammering Scotland on Saturday.
The only milestone Ireland can achieve is maintaining an unblemished run of home victories under Joe Schmidt in the championship at the Aviva Stadium in his fourth season in charge.
Unfortunately the latest defeat at the Principality Stadium — not the start we wanted to launch a decade of activity at the renamed venue — extends further to what is now becoming a recurring theme on the road in this tournament.
Under Schmidt, and excluding two trips to Rome, Ireland have only two victories to show from a total of eight visits to London, Paris, Edinburgh, and Cardiff. The away defeats to England and Wales in 2014 and 2015 respectively, were both absorbed before recovering to claim the title in dramatic circumstances on the final day of action.
Unfortunately, there will be no reprieve this time out. All that remains now is a tilt at halting England’s triumphant march towards a second successive Grand Slam and a world record 19th win on the trot.
The Irish squad now find themselves in the same space as their beleaguered Welsh counterparts going into battle last Friday, requiring a monumental performance to rescue what has proved a thoroughly underwhelming championship.
When the management team pore over the replay of this game and absorb the multitude of statistics that define the ebb and flow of the match, one glaring issue stands out. Wales scored three tries, Ireland none. This from a Welsh side that had only managed five in their three championship outings prior to this against an Irish side with an impressive 13 tries already registered.
It was always likely that Wales would deliver a performance commensurate with the talent and experience on show across a hitherto off-colour back line that averaged more than 50 caps a man. What wasn’t anticipated was the manner in which an underwhelming Welsh front five — the excellent Alun Wyn Jones excepted — would compete so favourably at the set piece.
Ireland got nothing from a scrum battle they were expected to dominate while Wales successfully challenged Ireland’s lineout in a way that no other side has managed to do all season. Losing three lineouts, in key attacking positions, was crucial, not least a pivotal five-metre platform off a penalty in the opening half when turning down a potential three points from the boot.
The hallmark of this team under Schmidt has been an ability to build pressure in the opposition 22 and come away with points. A team that has prided itself in remaining calm within 10 metres of the opposition line and executing under pressure completely lost its composure. Ireland spent 34% of the second half camped in the Welsh 22 but registered only three points.
That proved a killer.
Robbie Henshaw will rue his rash decision to hit an Irish maul on the side, ahead of the ball, which already looked as if it was on the way over the line with Rory Best controlling matters from the base. Had Ireland scored at that stage and regained the lead, they could well have gone on to win.
The writing was on the wall, however, before that with big, game-changing moments arriving in the opening half when Wales registered 10 points while Johnny Sexton was in the bin after receiving a yellow card — a fair call from referee Wayne Barnes — for not rolling away in the tackle. By not doing so, Sexton saved a certain try with a great cover tackle on a rejuvenated Jonathan Davies.
The fact that Conor Murray was injured around the same period, tackling another barely recognisable Welsh player in George North, killed any Irish rhythm. Clearly suffering from the extent of his elbow injury, Murray should have been removed from action earlier than he was.
With Ireland compromised at half-back, the back row feeling the heat in a titanic struggle against the excellent Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric and the set piece misfiring, this was a game the Irish players will want to erase from the memory bank as soon as possible.
The only way to do that now is to front up next Saturday and attempt to do what no side has managed since England lost 33-13 to Australia at the pool stage of their own World Cup back in October 2015.
Having spent Saturday in Twickenham watching England dismantle a Scottish side that beat Ireland in Murrayfield, you begin to appreciate the enormity of the task now facing Schmidt and the Irish players next weekend. That game in London was over as a contest before half-time with the incredible physicality England bring to the contact area taking its toll with several Scots falling like flies. They simply couldn’t cope.
With the championship already secured, England still have targets to achieve as Jones seeks to complete an unprecedented run of success for a new coach. Two seasons unbeaten against all comers — except New Zealand — since assuming control after the World Cup is some record.
With the Vunipola brothers now back in harness and Joe Launchbury, Courtney Lawes, and Maro Itoje smashing all before them, Ireland face one hell of a battle. That said, the players only need to look at the transformation in the way Wales played Friday night to know that the disappointment of Cardiff can be erased by stopping this free-rolling England juggernaut.
Putting a plan together to achieve that is easier said than done but that is what Schmidt and his management team are tasked with doing this week. Italy showed only two weeks ago that when England are taken out of their comfort zone and faced with variation and innovation, they are vulnerable.
Having beaten over the last eight months the best the southern hemisphere could muster, finishing this championship with just two wins from five would be catastrophic for Ireland. They have already denied one side chasing a historic, world record, 19th successive victory this season when accounting for New Zealand in Chicago. Doing so again, within the space of three months, would certainly help erase the hollow feeling that lingered leaving Cardiff late on Friday.
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