Momentum halted: Now we await the reaction

England 13 Ireland 10
The last thing Ireland’s players will have wanted was a lie-in this morning, but, after going the distance with England in this epic, heavyweight Test match on Saturday, the enforced rest could well be the perfect remedy as Joe Schmidt bids to keep his team on track for a Six Nations title.

The Triple Crown has slipped from the grasp, dreams of a first Grand Slam since 2009 have faded for another year and an extra week to brood over a game they felt they should have won will gnaw at the psyches of this squad, with their chance to atone, against Italy in Dublin on March 8, still 12 days away.

Yet even though the battle was lost on Saturday, head coach Schmidt will be at pains to remind his battered and bruised players, as they return for a mini-camp in Belfast this week, that the war can still be won.

The championship has been blown wide open but Ireland, with a superior points differential to the three other teams with two wins and one defeat in this campaign, remain on course for some long-awaited silverware.

First though, Schmidt will have to convince himself of that because having lost what he described as “as close to a slugfest as you’d get” in this immensely physical, bone-shuddering classic, a title challenge was still a long way out for the head coach to consider in the immediate aftermath of defeat.

“I guess it might become a carrot if we can take care of Italy,” Schmidt said. “We have to try to build piece by piece, especially when you trip up in a game. We’ve taken two quite good steps and to trip on this one means that you don’t want to then suddenly try to take a giant leap because you’re not in as strong a position. We’ve just got to make sure that the next step is firmly planted, secure and we’ll work toward that over the next two weeks.”

Schmidt may have had the demeanour of a man who felt he had suffered a devastating blow but he was right to call this defeat a “trip” and nothing worse, for his side did not suffer the hammerings that usually occur on England’s home turf when Ireland fail to win. The three Irish victories here since the birth of the Six Nations have been one-score affairs but the losses have been heavy.

Until now. This one was close, very close and though it may be harder to take initially, because of that, the rebound should be easier to engineer because a good Ireland side were beaten by a marginally better English outfit in a wonderful contest.

The pavements close to Twickenham Stadium may still have been trembling underfoot as commuters in south-west London returned to work today, such was the full-blooded ferocity of an encounter Schmidt said was: “probably one of the few games I’ve seen where there is one try apiece but an incredible amount of attacking rugby.”

“We knew it was going to be tough and we knew it was going to be a physical battle, that’s what it is with England,” Gordon D’Arcy said. “It’s an arm wrestle and they really try to squeeze you. You make mistakes because they put pressure, pressure, pressure and pressure on you because of their physicality.”

This was indeed a game all about pressure. Since their 2011 World Cup debacle under former manager Martin Johnson, England head coach Stuart Lancaster and his players have been slavishly trying to restore pride in their jersey and win back the loyalty of their frustrated supporters. On Saturday against Ireland, it felt as if both fans and this young team had crossed their Rubicon. Twickenham was hopping and the decibels were for a change on a par with anything the Aviva Stadium, Stade de France and even the Millennium Stadium can muster and both sides provided a game to fit the mood. The scoreboard may not have been overly exercised but this was a pulsating and exciting contest not spoiled by the fact that the protagonists were effectively cancelling each other out tactically for long periods. Rarely can an opening half that finished 3-0 to England have felt so exhilarating and Ireland upped the ante straight after the break when a well-executed lineout provided the opening try of the game. This time, though, it was not the maul that captain Paul O’Connell went to but a wonderful, attacking move that finished with a great offload from Jamie Heaslip into the path of a superb line from Rob Kearney that ripped England to shreds in the 42nd minute. Johnny Sexton’s conversion followed by a penalty seven minutes later gave Ireland a 10-3 lead and the game was the visitors’ to lose.

Which they did.

Rather than taking their foot off the pedal – it was not an afternoon for that – Ireland somehow lost the momentum. An Owen Farrell penalty closed the gap on 54 minutes and from the restart, Sexton’s kick-off was short of the 10m line and dead. And what a price Ireland paid as England took full advantage despite another strong defensive scrum from the Irish pack. When play broke Chris Robshaw went into contact on halfway and delivered an excellent offload to the express train that was man of the match Mike Brown, the full-back escaping the clutches of Rob Kearney to offload to the supporting runner Danny Care, who scored under the posts. Farrell converted and the tide had turned.

Ireland had not given up, they pressed and pressed and tried everything they could but failed to unlock a sturdy defensive white wall in the final, breathtaking 20 minutes. It was epic stuff and when the final whistle sounded there was no hiding the joy felt by the home side.

This was a victory that meant an awful lot to England, more so than defeat will hurt the Irish.

That is not to dip a toe into the clichéd waters of one team wanting it more than the other. There was no faulting Ireland’s desire, endeavour and commitment to the cause, underlined by the deep disappointment etched on the faces of players and coaches at the end.

There is plenty for Ireland to put right, with the head coach highlighting inaccuracy at the breakdown and the need to rediscover a more consistent cutting edge from a backline that was screaming out for the unpredictable talents of a Craig Gilroy or a Simon Zebo to unlock the English defence.

Yet this was not a bad Ireland performance. It was a brave one, a wholehearted one and there is much to feel positive about, even in defeat.

England may feel they have come of age with this win, but Ireland cannot afford to treat this as too much of a setback, merely a bump along the road.

ENGLAND: M Brown, J Nowell, L Burrell, B Twelvetrees, J May; O Farrell, D Care; J Marler (M Vunipola, 64), D Hartley (T Youngs, 75), D Wilson (H Thomas, 70); J Launchbury, C Lawes; T Wood (D Attwood, 70), C Robshaw — captain, B Vunipola (B Morgan, 36).

IRELAND: R Kearney; A Trimble (F McFadden, 65), B O’Driscoll (P Jackson, 79), G D’Arcy, D Kearney; J Sexton, C Murray (I Boss, 79); C Healy (J McGrath, 71), R Best (S Cronin, 74), M Ross (M Moore, 62); D Toner, P O’Connell – captain; P O’Mahony (I Henderson, 70), C Henry (J Murphy, 74), J Heaslip.

Referee: Craig Joubert (South Africa).


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