The possibility of a Grand Slam may have come and gone but the lessons learned and confidence gained from our defensive display against England should leave us in a better place.
Anytime you lose a close game like that it’s great to have a home game up next — especially when it’s against the Italians, who are staring down the barrel of a wooden spoon after their last-minute defeat to the Scots.
Ireland went to London with a lot of momentum following two home wins. Those victories were built around a pragmatic game plan of rock-solid defending, a dominant set-piece and having conceded an average of seven penalties in the previous five matches under Joe Schmidt.
We performed well in all those areas yet lost the match, which is certainly frustrating. We didn’t miss any kicks at goal from the kicking tee and dominated the statistics for possession and territory.
The difference was that we came up against another disciplined side who conceded only 10 penalties to our nine. Crucially, they only gave us one penalty within kicking range.
We had expected England to be more powerful than us in general but through strong technique and confidence in our system we managed to keep them to one try. Given the amount of pressure Ireland were under at times that’s a credible statistic to build confidence from.
However, their try will be one the Irish coaches will be poring over and relaying their disappointment to the team about. We had managed to take control of the game after Rob Kearney scored from a variation of one of the set plays Schmidt used frequently at Leinster and were leading 10-3.
For a frenetic five-minute spell after we scored our 10 points England looked as though they were about to implode. Wild passes were thrown and they lost their shape.
We had them but let them out.
How? Because we weren’t exact in our attempt to clear our lines. This led to England building pressure and winning a penalty under our posts. From the restart the safe option was to kick long and make England work their way up the field. With our defence they were likely to kick the ball out and give us field position.
That’s the benefit of hindsight, though. The English had factored on a long kick and afforded us space on the 10m line where we could contest the ball. Johnny Sexton mishit his kick, though, and put the English on our halfway.
Again we failed here. Ireland had the upper hand in the scrum all afternoon. The forwards got the shove on and Conor Murray pressurised Ben Morgan into a fumbled pass behind his ball line. For some reason our defence from the following ruck lacked clear communication and despite having six defenders against seven attackers when Danny Care passed to Owen Farrell only the first four rushed up. Murray and Sexton were passive and that provided the little dog leg that allowed Chris Robshaw offload to Mike Brown, leading to Care’s try.
When we get ahead like that you have to be absolutely ruthless in everything you do and use the pressure the opposition are feeling against them. We failed to close out a strong position against New Zealand in the autumn and Saturday was another opportunity lost to get the confidence from closing out tight games.
I liked the fact we tried to play with ball in hand a lot more than we did against the Welsh and the plays designed to target weaknesses in the English defence certainly were on the money. Ireland were unlucky the cross-field kick to Andrew Trimble was slightly too high, otherwise he would have had the momentum to get over the line.
The six-man lineout we tried in our own half resulted in Cian Healy being bundled into touch. But we had opened up a gap and Gordon D’Arcy and Trimble will feel they should have exploited the space inside earlier in the move.
Put simply we panicked a little bit to concede that try. With such an experienced side, particularly down the spine of the team through Lions Best, O’Connell, Heaslip, Murray, Sexton, O’Driscoll and Kearney, that will hurt. There were other areas that hurt as well though, and prevented us playing the type of game we can.
The kicking game lacked the certainty and accuracy we had against Wales. We should have targeted the English wings more than their full-back Brown, who was hurting us on the counterattack.
We also underused the maul until late in the game and I think we got the balance between off the top and driving a little wrong. Even though England were bigger and would have prepared for it the Irish maul has been so tight and low this season it’s nearly impossible to stop legally.
When you are not a team with a lot of big powerful men you have to be very accurate in punishing any numerical advantages your attacking shape creates. We had a couple of two-on-ones that we left behind on Saturday and while that may not cost us against the Italians it certainly will in Paris or in the big challenges ahead as we look towards the Rugby World Cup next season.
I firmly believe that despite us being an older team than England we have more progression left in us than they do. It’s still early days in Schmidt’s tenure with Ireland and the non-Leinster players will know more about how he does things with each week in camp and each game played.
That was Ireland’s first away match under the new management. By the time we play the next one in Paris we will be closer to the team he desires.
With two weeks to prepare I expect Ireland to really build on their attacking power and cohesion and knock up a healthy points difference over Italy before we finish in Paris.
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