Bosh! Ireland’s Grand Slam ambitions came unstuck at the hands of the Awesome Power of England’s pack – but it was a close-run thing, and it bore plenty of lessons for the tasks ahead for Team Schmidt.
Our success against Scotland and, particularly, Wales was predicated on potent mauling and successful counter-rucking. Problem was, on Saturday, Ireland didn’t try mauling with any regularity until the second half, and England protected their own ball aggressively at the breakdown. The decline in prominence of Peter O’Mahony from Ireland’s signature player of the first two weeks of the Six Nations (aside: when it became clear the BBC producers hadn’t got the memo about POM’s anthem-singing gusto, perhaps the writing was on the wall) was a direct result of the breakdown work of the English.
The set pieces were a success for Ireland, but England managed to restrict the influence of the scrum and lineout enough to ensure they wouldn’t be a platform for dominance. Ireland tended to use the lineout to go wide, in contrast to previous games, and it didn’t really work.
As well as our backrow have been playing, it seemed inevitable that we would one day lament the absence of Sean O’Brien and Fez. Saturday was the day – we didn’t have anyone capable of bulldozing a path through the middle, and we also lacked pace and penetration out wide. Oh for a Luke Fitzgerald, Tommy Bowe or even a Simon Zebo. Fitzgerald should at least be in the reckoning for Italy, and Zebo should have enough matchtime to be considered as well (if a lack of gametime truly is the reason he isn’t being considered) – indeed having Zebo on the bench might have given Ireland, at the very least, an X-factor they lacked in Twickers.
In the first half against Scotland, Ireland kicked pretty loosely – while the trundling Scots couldn’t take advantage, Mike Brown certainly did when we repeated the trick in Twickers. He was the games, and the tournament to dates, most influential player and his break set up the game-winning score for Danny Care. Joe Schmidt values accuracy of execution above all else, and Ireland didn’t do too well – 20+ tackles were missed, the ball was hoofed or chipped away aimlessly at times, and even the saintly BOD was attempting Hollywood offloads that didn’t stick.
In terms of the bench, it didn’t have the impact we needed, and even in its role as injury cover, wasn’t utilized. When Johnny Sexton appeared to get a knock with half an hour to go, Wee PJ stayed kicking his heels. Sure, Sexton is a key player in the team, but he is also human, and Sexton’s decision-making went down a notch in the closing quarter.
Yet in spite of all that, Ireland were in with a shout of a draw by the end (the lack of penetration in the team had surely killed off the chances of a win) – Joubert somehow called an Irish scrum for a scrum penalty that looked Ireland’s lifeline. They hung in there against the English physicality and intensity and nearly got their rewards. Admittedly, the prime butchery of at least 3 tries (Jonny May dropping the ball early on and eschewing a dive for the line for a turn inside just after Bob’s try, and the failure to take advantage of a 3-on-0 when under the posts) played a part, but you can’t control that. And the English defence was excellent – its worth doffing the cap to the Awesome Power of Courtney Lawes, who seemed to be everywhere in the last ten minutes.
So lots to work on – but some positives too. Its incredibly difficult to come to Twickers and win, and Ireland put themselves in a position to do so after 50 minutes. In terms of clear thinking under pressure, they coped poorly with the English aggression at ruck time and in defence, but never folded. The Monday morning review session might last until Tuesday, but you sense Ireland will learn from this defeat.
And don’t forget – Ireland are still top of the table in the race to win the actual Championship – something we don’t do very often. Unlike in 2009, when the Grand Slam was everything after years of coming close, the Championship without a Grand Slam will be an excellent achievement. With a home game against the wooden spoon staring-Italians to come, Ireland’s points difference advantage should be unassailable by the time they head to Paris in three weeks, meaning a win will open the Schmidt era as champions. We’d have taken that in January, and still will – this is the most hapless French team in memory, and the apparent bull-headed desire to stick by PSA until RWC15 also bids well for our chances in Blighty that year. If there ever was a year to win in Paris, this is it. Optimism-bashing alert – Irish rugby players tend to stand in awe of the mighty French with their chiselled jaws and excellent hair in Paris, and end up getting thumped – we need this mental hangup to disappear.
The last weekend will probably begin with both Ireland and France staring at silverware, as will the victor in next week’s BishBashBoshBowl between England and Wales. Make no mistake, England will feel they were in a real game on Saturday, and will be delighted with what looks like a big step in their development – and the irony of Ireland winning in Paris will be that we can win the Championship by doing something that Lancaster’s men couldn’t.