St. Patrick’s day/weekend is all about having a party; not for wrecking one. Last Saturday in Dublin that’s precisely what happened. England came for the Grand Slam and got slammed. England came on a quest and a date with destiny and like many a date, it ended in tears. A record 19th win and back to back Grand Slams were powerful motivating factors amongst the English rugby union rank and file. To imagine that such a feat would be easy on Irish soil was anathema to the host nation. The Irish team embarked on a war against joy. It was a mission and they would not give in.
England’s great unbeaten run stretched from the 10th October 2015 to the 18th March 2017 and encompassed 18 wins-equaling the All Blacks-with four against Australia and three against Wales, and you can throw in last year’s Grand Slam amongst it. However, just settling for the Six Nations championship is hardly a failure or a regression after the unbeaten run but nor surprising given the nature of Ireland’s performance.
Let’s give credit to England. From that first game in the unbeaten run, against Uruguay, to last Saturday’s maelstrom over the Irish Sea, England have improved immeasurably. From that devastating 2015 World Cup debacle, for the English at least, to the recent dust-up in Dublin, the English have come on leaps and bounds. It’s worth saying that it was always going to be a “bridge too far” and proved that there is much to be done in the English camp. They sit second in the world rankings behind the world champions and tied with 18 consecutive wins.
A week after the standout game of this year’s tournament-when England obliterated the improving Scots 61-21-the English coach Eddie Jones and his charges found themselves in a completely different environment. It was an uncomfortable feeling for England; not being control, not tactically on top of their game-hard with green jerseys clawing all over you-and being unable to compete in their traditionally strong areas. The game finished with a knock-on by Mike Brown, the English fullback, and a13-9 victory for the Irish. There was to be no “get lucky” run on this St. Patrick’s Day for the English. The English coach Eddie Jones displays a tremendous self-belief and tries to install the same in his team. No doubt he is a world class coach; however, he displays a certain amount of confidence which, to some, can be taken for arrogance. In the run up to the game there was too much talk about a potential game against New Zealand and not enough focus on Ireland. Jones talked “up” his team far too much before last Saturday’s game.
Let’s get to the game itself. The first half was an ordeal for the English forwards, with Ireland’s steaming into the exchanges; second row Ian Henderson stretched out with a long arm and scored the only try of the game and with Jonathon Sexton adding the conversion to an earlier penalty, against a solitary penalty from Owen Farrell as a riposte, Ireland took 10-3 lead and The Fields of Athenry shook the stadium to its foundations, England’s stadium no less-Twickenham- 288 miles away as the bird flies or Air Lingus; take you pick.
During the second half Sexton and Farrell exchanged penalties as Ireland took a strangle hold on the game. England did play with a wee bit more decisiveness in the second half and created a number of half breaks; however, the Irish defense swarmed all over them. England’s bench players or “finishers” have played a vital role in this year’s tournament. On this occasion they failed to contribute in any meaningful manner. It was all frantic in the dying minutes and Brown’s last minute fumble compounded England’s day.
Peter O’Mahony, along with his partner Sean O’Brien, was immense from beginning to end. One can imagine the pre-match conversation between these two and Coach Joe Schmidt. “What do you want from us during the game”? The monosyllabic reply from one of the most astute coaches in world rugby would be “work”. A tough shift at the coal face for these two blokes-no worries it’s just a job. Ireland lost number 8 Jamie Heaslip before the game to injury, and truth be told his position was coming under increasing pressure from O’Mahony. What a replacement. Schmidt also made the difficult decision to drop the reliable Devon Toner to the bench and replace him with the more abrasive Henderson. It all came together gloriously up front.
Ireland played at a level that had been beyond them so far this year. There was venom in every tackle, potency and threat with every attack and a fierce desire and fury to match England. Wigan rugby League great Andy Farrell was brought to stiffen the Irish defense and nullify the potency of his own son. Farrell senior used Robbie Henshaw in a “rabbit’ style defense. Henshaw “hared” in (get it?) and closed down the English passing channels, this in turn narrowed the options for George Ford and Farrell junior, the English play makers. Simple really!
England are the Six Nations champions again and that is not to be sniffed at. They were ugly against France, dogged against Wales, dozy and confused against Italy, sublime against the Scots and inept against Ireland. Jones ended his post-match press conference with an ill-judged remake or quip that Ireland’s number 8 Jamie Heaslip might have been “tackled by a leprechaun” after he pulled out during the warm-up. Joe Schmidt rightly criticized the comment as disrespectful. It is the type of comment that plays well to the galleries after a victory; however, comes across as crass when the boot is on the other foot. Eddie Jones has a great many positive attributes-social graces not amongst them.
There was a serious end to the proceedings outside the stadium when Dublin’s fire brigade attended a road traffic accident. Fortunately nobody was injured. It turned out be a minor collision involving a chariot, the only damage being sustained was to the wheels- which unfortunately came off.