It was another difficult day for Ireland at Twickenham as Andy Farrell’s team suffered an 18-7 defeat which was far more comfortable for England than the final scoreline suggests. Having taken hold of the game through a brace of quick-fire Jonny May tries in the opening 20 minutes, England were effectively able to sit back and see out the game as a limited Ireland attack failed to make any sort of headway against the hosts’ disciplined defence and ferocious line speed.
Andy Farrell and his players tried to focus on the positives after the game, but there was much to concern the Ireland head coach as his team continue to blow hot and cold during what is proving a tricky transitional period.
Here, we look at some of the key areas of the game as Ireland suffered a fourth consecutive defeat to England.
ENGLAND’S DEFENSIVE MASTERCLASS
In his post-game press conference Eddie Jones mentioned studying Liverpool FC’s transitional play, but the way his team set up at Twickenham also brought to mind Jose Mourinho’s famous accusation that Tottenham Hotspur ‘parked the bus’ on a visit to Stamford Bridge during his first spell as Chelsea boss.
England are excellent at controlling the game without the seeing the ball. Ireland actually enjoyed 68% of the possession and 72% of the territory, while also playing more passes, making more carries and gaining more metres. The only problem was they never looked like doing anything with the ball, England’s defence denying their opponents any time or space to think when in possession.
By this stage you will be aware that England made an incredible 238 tackles, missing only nine. Ireland, by comparison, only had to make 72 tackles, missing 11. Those numbers tell their own story, Ireland losing a game in which they rarely had to defend.
Andy Farrell played down Jonny May’s second try as “just a breakaway try really”, but you would hope his message is more stern in the video review room. Teams don’t often go end-to-end against Tier 1 opposition, and while May rightly deserves credit for a stunning solo effort, Ireland should be more concerned at the gaps, missed tackles and even sluggish defensive cover which allowed the try to happen.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) November 22, 2020
The most obvious problem for Ireland was a malfunctioning lineout, an area which also creaked under pressure against France last month, Ireland losing three attacking throws in Paris. A month later the same problems were once again laid bare.
On Saturday most fingers pointed at Ronan Kelleher, a 22-year-old hooker winning just his second Test start. Yet the lineout is a team effort, and while Kelleher will have to hold his hands up for some poorly executed throws – a full-stretch Peter O’Mahony could only get fingertips to the overthrow that led to May’s superb solo try – the real puzzle here was why Ireland kept allowing England to compete at the set-piece.
The hosts put Ireland’s lineout under serious pressure from the very start, yet time and time again Ireland kept making life hard for themselves by throwing to the back of the lineout, exactly where England wanted to contest. James Ryan, starting for the first time as Ireland captain, could possibly have done his team a favour by throwing in a few safer calls in an attempt to take Maro Itoje out of the equation.
An area of the game that gave Ireland so much joy during the Joe Schmidt era is now firing blanks and as long as that continues, this team will struggle against the top sides.
Maro Itoje's dominant performance has reignited the debate. Who is the best lock in the world? ? pic.twitter.com/O6aUPCV1b4
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) November 23, 2020
Without being heavily beaten on the scoreboard, Ireland never looked like winning this game once May had sniped for his quick-fire double. So when Ireland were having such little joy with their attacking game, where was Plan B?
Ireland had some encouraging moments from the boot in the early stages, but they soon moved away from their kicking game and engaged in a battle up front, an approach which played right into England’s hands and only served to needlessly expend energy. Having been physically bettered in their previous three meetings with England, it was wishful thinking that that would change this time around.
Ireland would have identified and worked on dealing with England’s ferocious line speed before the game, yet it certainly didn’t look that way. Chris Farrell made 17 metres off 15 carries, while Bundee Aki made 16m from eight. CJ Stander, who had one of his most ineffective games for Ireland in recent memory, gained just three metres from five carries and only made two tackles. Alongside him Peter O’Mahony, who worked hard throughout, went 12m for 11 carries, while Caelan Doris made 8m from his 13 carries.
Ireland were running into brick walls from the start, and continued to do so for 80 minutes. Some clever kicks by Ross Byrne and Billy Burns opened England up in the latter stages – Chris Farrell held up over the line before Jacob Stockdale pounced for a consolation try – which only served to underline the thought that Ireland should have tried mix things up sooner and more often.
It was evidently clear that England knew how to beat Ireland. Having suffered four successive defeats to Eddie Jones and Co, Ireland are still trying to figure England out.
Murray said that Ireland left Twickenham with "massive belief" even though they weren't able to prevent a fourth successive defeat to their rivals.https://t.co/5zpZ4M0aSN
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) November 23, 2020
Ross Byrne and Jamison Gibson-Park are light on Test experience, but they have plenty of big game understanding through Leinster and have steered the province well on many occasions. Yet in Twickenham the pair never looked likely to take control, an issue which can’t solely be placed at their feet.
Gibson-Park is a fine scrum-half and is well able to distribute the ball quickly and accurately, but in the face of England’s rush-defence his decision making was poor as a result of having so little time on the ball. He had some decent moments but his decision to try run the ball from a strange Ireland lineout move at the end of the first half almost resulted in an England try, while his kicking game also left a lot to be desired.
Alongside him Byrne was equally frustrating, and the 25-year-old must be cursing his luck at his only two Test starts both coming at Twickenham. Yet this is the level he wants to be at, so this is the standard he must meet. Playing so deep isn’t unusual for Byrne but it only served to keep Ireland on the back-foot, particularly the more he resisted using his boot, and was never going to allow him properly influence the game.
Watching from a distance, it was hard to work out what Farrell had asked of his half-backs. For now, Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray retain a firm hold on their jerseys.
Learning from Premier League champions Liverpool FC has really benefited Jonny May, who Eddie Jones believes has the potential to become England's top try scorer ever.https://t.co/rnSRCxcnek
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) November 23, 2020
EXPERIENCE AT THE HIGHEST LEVEL
Andy Farrell’s post-game message that Ireland won the second-half sounded a bit like a speech a coach might give a well-beaten team of U12’s, but it’s easy to understand why he would want to boost the confidence of an inexperienced team.
This was an England side containing 11 of those that started last year’s World Cup final, while six of Ireland’s starting XV had less than 10 caps to their name.
The visitors had to plan without Johnny Sexton, Tadhg Furlong, Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, Jordan Larmour, Joey Carbery, Dave Kilcoyne, Will Addison, Ryan Baird and Dan Leavy, but many of those players were involved in the previous three hidings handed out by England. Every team has to deal with injuries, and even if Ireland’s count is a little higher than usual right now, the problem is that many of the players available to Farrell have struggled against France and England in recent weeks.
More regular competitive games would certainly make a difference. Sixteen of Farrell’s 34-man squad for the opening rounds of the Nations Cup play their club rugby with Leinster, a team who spends their years clocking up routine Pro14 wins until the latter stages of the Heineken Champions Cup finally provide some genuinely competitive games.
Run through the diaries of players from the New Zealand, Australia, England, France, South Africa and Argentina Test squads, and you will find a much more demanding schedule at club level.
For many of Farrell’s squad, testing games will be few and far between before the start of the 2021 Six Nations.
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