England opened their 2019 Six Nations campaign with a controlled and comprehensive win over Ireland in Dublin, just the third time they have done so since the expansion of the tournament.
Ireland didn’t deliver the clinical performance expected of their quality side, while England capitalised on kick-pressure and strong ball-carrying. Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt described the carrying as something ‘as physical as he has seen’.
On defence, Ireland’s back three were under pressure constantly. The Jacob Stockdale-Robbie Henshaw-Keith Earls trio were tested frequently by the kicking game of Ben Youngs, Elliot Daly, Henry Slade and Owen Farrell, and without regular fullback Rob Kearney, England’s kick-game became far more effective.
“I don’t necessarily think they targeted him [Robbie Henshaw],” Schmidt said after the game.
“They extended the in-goals last year, they wanted to target that space in behind, they did that again. We knew they were going to do that.
“You just need fully fit, experienced guys to cover that space effectively.”
Once Earls suffered a hip injury in the first half, the inexperience of Ireland’s back three played into the hands of England’s game, even if it wasn’t a deliberate tactic to do so.
“He was our most experienced back-three player, in the context of the game,” Schmidt said of Earls, who was forced from the field in the first half.
“I thought Robbie [Henshaw] did a pretty good job. Keith tried to run his hip-pointer injury off for 20 minutes, so he was under pressure to cover the space and cover his side of the pitch.
“Robbie had a double-job almost at times. With the volume of running he did, I thought he was as good as he could’ve been.
Henshaw’s effort was commendable in the circumstances but there is no doubt that losing the experience Kearney ended up as a decisive factor in how the match played out. It wasn’t Henshaw’s aerial prowess they put under the microscope – it was his spatial coverage.
Ireland’s defensive system works in large part because Kearney’s backfield coverage is special, allowing the wingers to play up and drop back to assist when necessary. At times the backfield will have all three players, sometimes just two players and just as often only one – Rob Kearney.
Losing that cog almost requires a whole new system, even before you lose Earls. Ireland didn’t make any systemic changes to the back three like resorting to defending with two fullbacks and moving Johnny Sexton out of the front line.
The passage of play that leads to the ‘Stock-fail’ in-goal blunder illustrates just how much Henshaw was worked over by England’s kickers.
Following Ireland’s opening try, England were able to dictate terms using the kickoff to arrest territorial control.
Farrell’s deep kick off, a tactic they used the whole match, pinned Ireland down around 10-metres out, forcing Conor Murray to kick long to exit.
All of Murray’s exit box kicks in the first half were long, either directly into touch or uncontested as a result of the deep kick-offs. This took away Ireland’s own contestable aerial game and protected fullback Elliot Daly from receiving a high ball barrage.
Returning Murray’s long exit kick, England plays 10 phases before Farrell decides to drill a long grubber deep into the far corner, forcing Henshaw to cover ground and return serve.
England marches back again and two phases later, Slade drills a long grubber deep into the opposite corner, forcing Henshaw to cover ground to the far side and make another exit kick, which he shanks giving England a prime attacking lineout 20-metres out.
From the lineout, they call a 21-pattern switch play, which is designed to perfectly isolate Henshaw on one side, moments after giving him a workout.
They will play two phases one way before using Farrell and Daly on long ‘tack’ lines to change the direction of attack.
On the first phase, England uses the strong carrying ability of Manu Tuilagi (12) to set a midfield ruck. On the second phase, they play a pod of forwards coming around the corner for a carry, further bringing play the same way.
Robbie Henshaw (15) is starting to push out further in anticipation of a third phase coming to Earls’ edge, who has suffered a hip injury minutes before.
On the third phase England run the switch, Owen Farrell (10) and Elliot Daly (15) pivot and streak across to the open side, getting a 15-metre horizontal head start on Henshaw at the top of the screen.
Farrell runs a timing route to hit the ball at speed behind a pod with Manu Tuilagi (12) as the primary carrier.
Tuilagi plays Farrell out the back and Farrell plays Daly on a screen pass behind Henry Slade (13).
Ireland has the numbers to cover Nowell with Conor Murray (9), the last defender on the edge, but there is a communication breakdown and Stockdale comes up anyway, leaving space in behind.
As the kick is made, the vast space in behind is visible. Murray and Stockdale are targeting the same man, Jack Nowell, a problem that was prevalent on more than one occasion in this match.
From the broadcast angle, England has created a 25-metre window between Henshaw and Stockdale, with the fullback no chance to get anywhere near this ball.
Stockdale is isolated and must cover the kick by himself but is still able to recover and is the first man to the ball.
Unfortunately for Ireland, Stockdale fails to get control of the ball and Daly wins the race to the loose ball ahead. The mistake is the primary factor in the score, but the isolation of Henshaw played a part. If he is around to make a play there is a chance the ball falls his way.
England could not have set this up more brilliantly, yet even then had to rely on Stockdale’s error. If Kearney’s experience was in the backfield, there is a chance he reads the play unfolding earlier and is there to cover Stockdale’s error.
Another rusty component to Ireland’s defence was the return of halfback Conor Murray, who started his first test for Ireland since the June tour to Australia.
The way Murray defends is very different from that of Kieran Marmion or Luke McGrath, who filled the position in his absence. He is like an extra loose forward, a front line defender capable of holding his own against forwards.
He also floats between different areas of the field and is frequently found out on the perimeters, often as the second to last defender. As illustrated in the example above, there seemed to be a communication breakdown with Murray and Stockdale. We can find the same problem on England’s first strike.
England have worked away at whittling down Ireland’s defence on the left edge and have created a 5-on-3 from Owen Farrell outward.
Billy Vunipola’s offload allows England to attack without Ireland’s defence set, which is also a factor. Murray is still backtracking into position as Youngs receives the ball and is almost in the pocket of Garry Ringrose (13).
In this situation, Ireland would typically play jockey defence, projected hypothetically below, in order to cover the overlap.
Whether Rob Kearney usually makes the defensive calls from the back is unknown, but may have also played a factor in the breakdowns. On this occasion, no one is on the same page.
As Farrell winds up the long pass, Ringrose plays up-and-out coverage, Murray doesn’t get off the line and Earls (14) gambles for the intercept, rushing up-and-in. Earls and Murray end up both aligned on Tuilagi (12).
The pass beats Earls and leaves Ireland compromised, Daly streaks down the corridor and England skin them down a 3-metre channel.
Ireland would back themselves to prevent these two tries from happening if presented with the same scenarios again and will be dirty having conceded 14 points in this fashion. It gave Ireland no chance of winning the game when England’s defence was extremely stout on the other side.
England scored another try off a brilliant set-piece kick with a backfield of Stockdale, Henshaw and Jordan Larmour in the second half before a Slade intercept put the icing on top of a comprehensive win.
England’s kicking game was masterful, and played perfectly into the predicament Ireland found themselves in.
Whether it can be replicated again with the same level of success against every opponent in the Six Nations, and the Rugby World Cup for that matter, remains to be seen, but will be an interesting aspect to follow as England look to build on an impressive opening win and chase a third Six Nations title and second Grand Slam in four years.
Ireland’s Conor Murray post-match interview:
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