Three days on from Ireland’s 18-7 Autumn Nations Cup defeat to England at Twickenham, the victors are being praised over there for a defensive performance for the ages while over here, a fourth straight reverse against the English is being viewed as a sign the Irish rugby apocalypse is nigh.
Yet in many ways, the manner of defeat at the weekend should have come as no surprise. Once Eddie Jones picked the strongest starting line-up available to him Ireland were up against it with the experimental side selected by Andy Farrell, ceding a 725 (England) to 433 cap differential.
Farrell knew what was coming for his players and was prepared to see them put under the toughest of examinations. Which points to his positivity at full-time that his squad will be better for their experience, however uncomfortable it felt.
Pre-game, the Ireland head coach spoke of his curiosity at how his team would react to the challenge facing them and now he knows. He will certainly learn a lot more from last weekend’s Test than this Sunday’s when tier-two nation Georgia visit Aviva Stadium for the final Autumn Nations Cup pool game of this admirable attempt to plug a Covid-sized void in the international rugby calendar.
A home play-off against opponents from the opposite pool awaits on December 5 and Ireland will need to answer some more questions by then but Farrell’s sights will be set even higher. The head coach needs to get his evolving squad back up to the top table of Test rugby, where Ireland are feared just as much as the game’s big beasts.
Based on the 2020 defeats on Farrell’s watch, twice to England and the Halloween nightmare in Paris, the shortcomings appear to be clear and obvious. Now the lessons have to be learned.
The stats do not lie. Ireland enjoyed 68% possession and forced England into 238 tackles compared to their 72, with five home forwards each making 20 or more. Yet with eight minutes remaining, Farrell’s side had failed to put points on the scoreboard, Jacob Stockdale’s late try sparing Irish blushes by avoiding the dreaded whitewash. England are rightly being praised for their relentless defensive display but Ireland have to find ways around smothering rearguard actions such as they faced on Saturday so possession is turned into points.
Ireland had started brightly with Ross Byrne launching some probing kicks behind the first line of the England defence and Stockdale’s try on 73 minutes was the product of an inventive kick through from Byrne’s replacement Billy Burns. What happened in between was all too predictable as Farrell’s players allowed England’s pressure game to throw them off course. Attack coach Mike Catt has to get his players to follow through on good intentions and stick to the gameplan or Ireland will continue to come up against a brick wall.
When opportunities were created, Ireland were let down by inaccuracies close to the opposition tryline. A clinical edge needs to be reintroduced. England showed them the way, making the most of their few chances, going for the jugular after finding their way into Ireland’s 22, executing the lineout efficiently, then sucking the Irish wide defence infield before sending it scrambling with a pinpoint crossfield kick and reducing the contest to an aerial duel that Jonny May won at the expense of Hugo Keenan.
As for the second try, Ireland’s failure to execute from an attacking lineout in the English 22 was exposed.
Twice in the last month, Ireland’s attacking evolution has foundered at the set-piece, gilt-edged try-scoring opportunities undone by overthrows, handling errors and miscommunication.
England’s defensive pressure from Joe Launchbury and man of the match Maro Itoje was superb, disrupting cohesion, but it was another bad day for the Irish lineout and the return of Iain Henderson alongside James Ryan following suspension and a medical issue respectively can’t come soon enough. Now Ireland need a dependable hooker with Farrell so far unable to come up with a suitable successor to the retired Rory Best. Niall Scannell is still sidelined with a neck injury and Ronan Kelleher may well be the answer but it was a poor outing from the Test rookie on his first visit to Twickenham.