It could have been much worse for Joe Schmidt, and in so many ways.
Having endured a poor first-half performance from his Ireland side, the final scoreline flattered the visitors for one thing. For aside from two disallowed England tries that would have properly reflected a superiority forged during a blistering opening 20 minutes from the home side, there were also a string of butchered try-scoring opportunities.
And for another thing, he could be in Warren Gatland’s shoes.
The Wales coach, whose most recent verbal grenades have been directed at Ireland and imminent World Cup group rivals England, is less likely to be so provocative this week now his best-laid plans have the potential to disintegrate in the wake of possibly tournament-ending injuries to key backs Rhys Webb and Leigh Halfpenny.
Schmidt, on the other hand, has emerged from a long pre-season with his squad remarkably intact having lost only Munster flanker Tommy O’Donnell to serious injury. Even the fitness concerns arising from Saturday’s defeat at Twickenham appear, if the post-match medical report is to be taken at face value, in the immediate short-term. Conor Murray will go through return-to-play protocols following a head injury from a tackle on Joe Marler referee Nigel Owens believed had seen him knocked out.
It will rightly be treated as a concussion although Schmidt placed great store in his scrum-half’s ability to rise from the recovery position in which he had been placed and jog off on 17 minutes. Similarly, second-half departures for Johnny Sexton and Simon Zebo were explained as cramping issues and their withdrawals from the action precautionary.
This, after all, was only a friendly, a pre-World Cup warm-up. The Ireland camp had spent the week saying that this final Test of the summer before the business of a Pool D campaign begins was anything but those things and it certainly proved to have the pace and physicality to fit the description of a Test match between two Six Nations rivals in front of an 80,138 crowd at Twickenham.
Yet there were precautionary withdrawals which forced a positional rejig that saw flanker Chris Henry finish on the wing and three props on the field at full-time. When Schmidt came to explain away those, or the circumstances of a conclusion to the game which, having fought back from 15-3 down just after half-time to 15-13 through a Sexton penalty and converted Paul O’Connell try, saw England close out victory with two late Owen Farrell penalties, the Ireland boss insisted it was all down to the nature of the contest.
Ireland had chances and in addition to O’Connell’s pick-and-drive try borne of an almighty Rory Best clean-out at a ruck, Schmidt’s backline had carved open glimpses of the line with Robbie Henshaw’s impetus if not execution taking his side to the brink of scores. The best of them, though, had come from a set-piece opportunity, a penalty inside England’s half kicked to the corner only for the ensuing short-range lineout to go awry as Geoff Parling stole the throw.
“That gives us a little bit of heart that we’re creating those opportunities and we’d hope not to lose a six or seven metre line-out in the World Cup when it’s a crucial game when we’re looking to make the most of that opportunity as well,” Schmidt said.
“When you start to have a look at those - and we lost a ball six or seven metres out from the line at the end of the first-half (Henshaw’s pass to Dave Kearney just enough off-beam to check the wing’s run) as well - that could have allowed us to just squeeze the difference going into the break. We gave up the potential of a three-pointer to go 12-6 down in the attempt to get a try. Again, in a Six Nations game we might not have done that but we wanted to practice a little bit of what we’ve been doing and I think the players’ decision on the pitch was bang on. We just didn’t execute.”
Come the World Cup, which for Ireland starts 12 days from now against Canada at the Millennium, different scenarios will more likely occur.
Penalties will be kicked towards goal rather than touch when the scoreboard really matters, and players may play through pain to secure a victory when it counts, as it will later this month and into the business end of the tournament in October.
For it is then Ireland will need to remember how to beat the best teams in the world. If Ireland are to return to Twickenham during the World Cup it will mean they have already achieved the goal of reaching a semi-final for the first time but with France in their pool and either New Zealand or Argentina waiting for them in the quart-finals, Schmidt is only too aware that for his players to do get there they will have to hit their very optimum levels of performance, something they seemed a long way off against the English on Saturday.
“That’s the imperfection of these sort of games,” Schmidt said of the messy conclusion to pre-season, “but, without being glib, it probably doesn’t reflect the power and pace that England injected into their game.
“They’re a rare animal in the world of rugby, in that they have incredible strength in depth and an incredibly talented group, that any time you’re not bang on, we are going to struggle against them. And so, if we come up against them again, we’re going to have to be.”
M Brown; A Watson, J Joseph, B Barritt (S Burgess, 59), J May; G Ford (O Farrell, 59), B Youngs (R Wigglesworth, 59); J Marler (M Vunipola, 55), T Youngs (J George, 59), D Cole (K Brookes, 62); C Lawes, G Parling (J Launchbury, 12-19; 45); T Wood, C Robshaw, B Morgan (B Vunipola, 55).
S Zebo (T Furlong, 69); T Bowe, J Payne, R Henshaw (I Madigan, 60), D Kearney (D Cave, 60 - blood); J Sexton (D Kearney, 65), C Murray (E Reddan, 17); J McGrath (M Ross, 74), R Best (R Strauss, 61), M Ross (N White, 59); D Toner, P O’Connell (D Ryan, 65); P O’Mahony, S O’Brien (C Henry, 61), J Heaslip.
Nigel Owens (Wales).
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