Are Ireland now in transition?

When all the talking was done, and there was plenty of it in the build-up to this latest instalment of Anglo-Irish sporting relations, it just came down to power and the execution of it.
Are Ireland now in transition?

England had it, not least through the rampaging carrying of the peerless Billy Vunipola, and after a dominant first half in which they failed to make the most of it in the face of resolute Irish defence, they finally found the clinical finishing touches to earn their reward.

Two tries within five minutes around the hour mark put daylight between these sides and keep rejuvenated England on course for a first Grand Slam since 2003.

Wales may have something to say about that when they visit Twickenham in two weeks. If they take any lesson from Ireland’s performance on Saturday it will be to take every chance you get.

Ireland repeatedly failed to do so, a TMO judgement call to deny Josh van der Flier, a last-ditch tackle on Robbie Henshaw and an attacking line-out that malfunctioned three times inside the English 22, all conspired to send Joe Schmidt’s outgoing champions into round four of the championship still searching for their first victory.

The narrow margins all added up to a scoreline that flattered England but the victory was nonetheless deserved.

They took their chances, eventually, and punished Ireland’s second-half failures leaving Schmidt to rue those fine margin. His team are getting closer to the try line, and van der Flier, Stuart McCloskey and Ultan Dillane played their part in impressive debuts.

That ruthless, killer edge is still missing in attack, though, leaving Conor Murray as Ireland’s only try scorer in this championship.

His 45th minute try, taken moments after shipping a late and dangerous tackle at neck height from James Haskell, which reduced England to 14 men, came just as his first score had come in the draw against Wales.

From the back of a tryline ruck he outfoxed opposite number Ben Youngs with a show-and-go to dive over the line and push Ireland into the lead with the first try England have conceded in 2016.

The visitors had trailed 6-3 at the interval, England’s 60% possession and 73% territory in the first 40 minutes only translating to two Owen Farrell penalties that negated Johnny Sexton’s sixth-minute score from the tee.

Sexton would convert Murray’s try to send the Irish 10-6 ahead but that was that, Ireland’s scoreboard operator clocking off early for the second game in succession as their failure to score beyond 45 minutes came back to bite them once more.

The Irish defence had been forced to attempt 95 tackles in the first half, No 8 Vunipola almost single-handedly responsible for the 14 of them that were missed as he ploughed through a succession of men in green.

It had to take its toll. Another thundering Vunipola carry wreaked havoc, taking England, restored to 15 men, back into the Irish 22 in the 50th minute.

Ireland’s defence finally cracked, first through left wing Anthony Watson and then full-back Mike Brown in the other corner, Farrell converting the second try to leave England 21-10 up with 18 minutes to play.

Those minutes should have turned the game back towards Ireland and they were breaking the English line.

Sexton broke over halfway before releasing Henshaw down the right, only a great covering tackle from Jack Nowell denying him five points in the corner.

Substitute Dillane made a stunning impact, the Connacht lock stealing a line-out and later breaking the tackles of Brown and Dylan Hartley and charging upfield, offering a glimpse of a great future for Ireland as he passed inside to van der Flier, whose offload returned the ball with the try line looming.

Dillane was stopped short at the five-metre line and Ireland lost their momentum, slow ball leading to a pressure-relieving English penalty.

Then came van der Flier’s shot at glory. England were once again reduced to 14 as Danny Care was binned for not rolling away at a ruck, which had seen Murray’s eye cut by Brown’s boot, the full-back trying to extract the ball from the Irishman’s grasp with repeated kicks.

No card there but England were left short once more and van der Flier crashed over with fellow debutant Elliot Daly getting his body underneath the carrier.

It still looked a good grounding, Schmidt certainly thought so, but the officials did not.

Game over and Ireland are without a win in the opening three rounds, their worst start since 1998 when their Five Nations campaign ended in a whitewash. You would not expect a repeat of that outcome with Italy and Scotland to visit Dublin but Schmidt has demanded some instant development from his injury-hit and transitional team.

“There’s got to be (growth),” the Irish head coach said, “because you can’t lose Test matches and you can’t put yourself in the picture, get ahead in the second-half with 30 minutes to go, then give up two tries and then not convert the chances that you have to score.

“At the end, we felt a bit unlucky that Josh wasn’t awarded a try but then we didn’t do well enough at the scrum subsequent to that.

“There’s things we’ve got to get better at, there’s got to be room for growth because if there’s not it’s going to be a very bad habit that we don’t want to be part of.”

The recent mantra is that Ireland are not a million miles away from clicking into top gear, and that may be so, but Schmidt said he was not prepared to sit back and wait for that to happen.

“You just keep working really hard. I don’t think if anyone watched us training they’d say that we’re sitting and waiting — we’re working really hard to try and fast-track some guys through, to try and fast-track some combinations, so that they can be as intuitive as possible.

“On the back of that, if you won a couple of games it’s always a bit easier to get those combinations, because you feel a bit more confidence in them on the back of having what I thought was a really good performance against Wales in getting the draw and some elements of the French game, I felt we played very well in the first 30 minutes.

“But we’re not quite getting the result, therefore you start to question what you’re doing a little bit.

“Any hesitation at this level is a recipe for disaster. We’ve got to maintain our confidence, keep our heads up, roll our sleeves up and go again.”

ENGLAND:

M Brown; A Watson, J Joseph, O Farrell (E Daly, 65), J Nowell; G Ford, B Youngs (D Care, 59); J Marler (M Vunipola, 59), D Hartley, capt (J George, 71), D Cole; M Itoje, G Kruis; C Robshaw (J Clifford, 71), J Haskell (C Lawes, 77), B Vunipola.

Yellow cards:

Haskell 44-54; Care 71-end

IRELAND:

R Kearney; A Trimble, R Henshaw, S McCloskey (S Zebo, 64), K Earls; J Sexton (I Madigan, 77), C Murray (E Reddan, 71); J McGrath (C Healy, 59), R Best, capt (R Strauss, 71) , M Ross (N White, 59); D Ryan (U Dillane, 65), D Toner; CJ Stander (R Ruddock, 67), J van der Flier, J Heaslip.

Referee:

Romain Poite (France).

More in this section

Sport
Newsletter

Latest news from the world of sport, along with the best in opinion from our outstanding team of sports writers

Sign up
IE_logo_newsletters

Select your favourite newsletters and get the best of Irish Examiner delivered to your inbox