The last 20 minutes of England’s defence of their Twickenham fortress on Saturday was fascinating.
The English repelled the Irish advances repeatedly, keeping the hordes at a safe distance from the line.
And when the ball was turned over a white shirt would promptly send play back into Irish territory where the entire process would begin again.
A top level international defensive line is a tough nut to crack. Possession, if not used correctly, can mean very little. For starters, it all depends where on the field one has control of the ball. Ireland had much of their possession between their 22 and halfway line whereas England actually had more rucks and mauls in Ireland’s 22 than in the rest of the pitch.
Some of the statistics from the final quarter are revealing. Ireland’s substitutes, on the field for a combined 70 minutes, made a combined 13 carries but were called upon to make just a single tackle attempt.
In contrast, England replacement Dave Attwood came into the back row in the 69th minute and had to make nine tackles in just 11 minutes of play. In England’s defensive effort Chris Robshaw made 22 tackles from 23 attempts, Joe Launchbury 18 of 20 and substitute Ben Morgan 14 of 17 in just 44 minutes on the field.
In the backs, Billy Twelvetrees made 16 of 20, Owen Farrell 13 of 15 and Luther Burrell 10 of 13.
On the Irish side of the defensive ledger Chris Henry and Devin Toner had 15 tackle attempts each with Jonathan Sexton leading the backs with 14. Of his 11 tackle attempts Rory Best missed five, an unusually high number.
Ireland’s highly touted superweapon, the rolling maul, didn’t really get going. It seemed odd, given the technical precision that had so obviously been implemented in this facet of the game, that it wasn’t used as a weapon to strike unease into the English team and the crowd.
England were rarely in defensive trouble in the closing stages. As Dave Kearney looked to have found a glimpse of freedom on the left wing the cover came across to block his wide route; when he slightly changed his angle to come inside those mere inches gave a diving Joe Launchbury the chance to execute a marvellously athletic tap tackle.
In that final quarter there was a lack of spark from those in the critical decision-making positions of nine and 10; too often the ball went very predictably from Murray to Sexton andonwards allowing the defence to transfer theirattentions without too much trouble and eventually swamp a ball carrier.
Murray looked exhausted as he jogged from ruck to ruck in the final 10 minutes. At test level the fitness requirements are fearsome and, at scrum-half in particular, the aerobic fitness demands are extreme. And this was a match with a lot of open play at serious pace. His midfield partner Jonathan Sexton had taken a very heavy knock before that final quarter and also looked lacking in ideas. Through all this Isaac Boss and Paddy Jackson sat on the bench, both unused until the final minute. Every team needs something different to shake up the opposition defence even it’s just fresh legs and a fresh brain. Wave after wave of similar Ireland attacks were capably absorbed with little variation thrown in. To be able to look back at these happenings from a safe vantage point a few days after the heat of battle is a privilege not afforded those at the front, nor to those issuing battle orders from the sidelines. Even so, in that final quarter as Ireland had almost complete dominance of possession it is fair to look closely at why they could not quite make that critical breakthrough.
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