Donal Lenihan: Losing by 12 a minor miracle

THE journey takes less than a minute but it’s the moment you know you’ve arrived at one of the best arenas in world rugby.

Donal Lenihan: Losing by 12 a minor miracle

THE journey takes less than a minute but it’s the moment you know you’ve arrived at one of the best arenas in world rugby.

The majority of the same Irish players took that spine-tingling walk from the team coach through the a pair of entrance pillars en route to the Twickenham dressing rooms for that disastrous World Cup warm up last August. They would have been confident of a different outcome this time out.

The England players hadn’t experienced that short journey since the last time they met Ireland five months ago. Given everything that has happened to them in the meantime, I’m sure they were delighted to be back home and how well they took all the advantages that accrue from that.

Our recent history against England has been poor, 89 points and 12 tries conceded in the two outings in 2019. The majority of the starting Irish pack yesterday were on board for both of those encounters. All would have appreciated that something drastic had to change to win this one.

As I outlined here Saturday, the one thing you just cannot afford to allow is England to build any semblance of momentum from the off. Once they get their nose in front, they are a very difficult team to peg back.

Quite how Ireland found themselves within 12 points of England at the final whistle was a mystery as the hosts enjoyed almost total dominance on every aspect of play. If anything England will rue the fact that their dominance didn’t yield a fourth try for a bonus-point win that could yet prove crucial in deciding where this championship eventually ends up.

In theory, Ireland are still in contention, with France the only unbeaten side left in the tournament but a lot will have to change for Ireland to be in a position to challenge the French on the final day of action at the Stade de France. Based on their superb win over Wales at the Principality Stadium on Saturday, they will be chasing a Grand Slam that night, once they account for Scotland next time out.

For the third game in a row against England, Ireland lost the physical battle despite the fact that Mako and Billy Vunipola played no part for the hosts. In truth, England didn’t need them as Courtney Lawes, Maro Itoje, Kyle Sinckler and Tom Curry stepped up as explosive carriers up front.

When it came to challenging the gain line from set plays, Manu Tuilagi proved unstoppable. Despite the best efforts of Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw, Tuilagi regularly generated serious momentum off attacking line outs which put England on the front foot for the entire opening half.

The two opening tries came from Irish errors in the in-goal area, one from a horrible bounce that left Johnny Sexton exposed, the second from a complete lack of concentration from Jacob Stockdale as he appeared to wait for the ball to bounce over the dead ball line. Elliot Daly had other ideas however and caught Stockdale napping. It was a schoolboy error by the Ulster winger.

The fact that both scores came from clever grubber kicks from England’s two quality play makers in Owen Farrell and George Ford signified the tactical dominance they enjoyed throughout that opening half.

For whatever reason, Ireland looked completely off the pace from the off, making a number of errors, and struggled to cope with England’s menacing line speed in defence. Time and again Aki and Henshaw received man and ball together and couldn’t generate anything in an attacking sense.

When they did retain possession it was far too slow to be of any use. With Tom Curry and Sam Underhill wreaking havoc on the floor, England managed to stifle Ireland’s recycle without having to flood the ruck.

With numbers on their feet closing the space, Ireland’s attacking options were completely shut down. The back three of Stockdale, Jordan Larmour and Andrew Conway, who enjoyed so many positive touches in the opening half against Wales last time out, barely touched the ball on this occasion.

Seventeen points behind at the break, about the only positive was the fact that Ireland would have a very strong wind at their backs for the second 40 minutes. Quite how they managed to close the margin of England’s victory to 12 points, despite the fact that their set piece came under increasing pressure in that period, was a minor miracle.

Given the circumstances, the character the team showed in that second half was admirable, just about the only positive the players and management could take from this disappointing outing. On a day when nothing went right, Ireland entered the final quarter without one of their starting backline in the same position.

By that stage John Cooney and Ross Byrne were at half back, Sexton at inside centre with Aki shifted to outside centre. Henshaw was positioned on the left wing, Keith Earls on the right, with Stockdale shifted to full back.

The game was already in the bag, a point highlighted by the smiles and hugs shared by Joe Marler, Ben Youngs and Lawes when the were collectively replaced with 23 minutes still left to play. That said everything.

Ireland’s scrum suffered badly when Andrew Porter, primarily a loose head these days, was forced to come on at tight head. Once England smelt a weakness there, they went for the jugular. Their defence of Ireland’s line out maul, a key foundation stone of this side in 2018, was superb, continually sacking Ireland at source, forcing either turnovers or penalties.

Once again Itoje made life miserable for Ireland at the breakdown with his ability to swim through the maul and create havoc. England also won the key aerial battle with Daly and Jonny May positively contesting every kick launched by Ford and Farrell.

Ireland coach Andy Farrell quickly needs to tease out why his team were so slow out of the blocks and why they found it so difficult to generate any quick ball. When they did so in the final quarter they did manage to stress England.

A positive bench impact from Caelan Doris and John Cooney was a contributory factor here with the big Leinster No 8 making a number of big carries. While Cooney was caught napping at one breakdown when he lost possession, he ran two great supporting lines that could, on another day, have yielded tries. As a result, they may now get the opportunity to start against Italy next time out.

Farrell appreciates better than most that when stripped back, test matches can be distilled down to two areas, with physicality and emotion both key in generating the momentum required to win at this level.

On both fronts, England were miles ahead. After losing a World Cup final, returning home to Twickenham for the first time was always likely to offer them the emotional edge. The physical edge is now one England have enjoyed over Ireland for some time, especially when Tuilagi is on board.

That’s six times he has played against Ireland and has never lost. In the end, his presence proved far more influential than the absence of the Vunipola brothers. Right now, England just have our measure.

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