England, dead and buried only seven days earlier, a lifeless husk, did the nigh on impossible when rolling back the stone at the Aviva Stadium to restore some credibility in this important World Cup year. It was quite the resurrection trick for there was not a single pundit who backed their chances coming into one of Dublin’s most riotous weekends. A green tide of potential humiliation would surely wash over them. Yet England have managed to re-kindle that most precious of things, a modicum of hope for what lies ahead.
It may be slim pickings for a team that has once again finished down among the also-rans of the championship, losing three matches for the third successive season, a pitiful return for a union with such resources and a team that was a well-deserved World Cup finalist in 2019. But that is a measure of how far England have fallen. They were stripped off so much integrity by that French shellacking, looking as if the Steve Borthwick era had imploded even before it had properly started.
There is a huge amount of data that is poured into a high performance operation, stats and trends and metrics, but the one thing that a team with genuine pretensions needs is heart. Without that sense of togetherness, that willingness to work for each other and to believe in the cause, then any campaign doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. England have rescued themselves from the brink. It’s a start, no more than that. It lends possibility to the next six months, that’s all. This could have been another day for England fans to hide behind the sofa and cover their eyes and ears.
Who knows what might have happened if Freddie Steward had not been sent off just before half-time? Well, we do actually. Ireland would have done as Ireland have been doing and found a way to win anyway.
It was a ridiculously harsh decision, though, one made without any genuine feel for the context of the particular incident. Of course the prime consideration in the sport is to show duty of care for the afflicted player, in this case Ireland full-back, Hugo Keenan. But there were too many strands in play, the knock-on, the loose ball, Steward turning to protect himself, that a yellow card would have been the right call.
Ireland have been ace problem-solvers and even if the red card shortened the odds in their favour they came through strongly in the second half just as they had done against Scotland the previous weekend.
England battled manfully but it was too much of a burden to carry for them. Given that Ireland have shown themselves to be the masters of virtually every moment they have encountered in this Six Nations, it is a fair bet that they would have found a way to shake off that dogged England of the first half even if it had to be against 15 men for the duration. Ireland have been ace problem-solvers and even if the red card shortened the odds in their favour they came through strongly in the second half just as they had done against Scotland the previous weekend.
England had a pretty basic hit-list of requirements for this final meaningful fixture before the World Cup: be fierce and savvy at the breakdown, be solid in the set-piece, be ferocious in the tackle and stay in the fight. In that regard, England finished in credit even if their accumulative total for tries conceded in the tournament, 18 tries, is worrying. The glass half-full take on that sobering stat is that the long time in summer camp under the tutelage of Kevin Sinfield, can only improve matters.
One thing is for sure is that Owen Farrell should be the man to lead them into that World Cup with the No 10 shirt on his back. That debate is now over. We can argue the respective merits of Farrell up against the jack-knifing Marcus Smith, all hopping and shimmying as he probes for space and openings, but this England needs Farrell at the helm for it to have any chance to prosper. And given the ludicrous imbalanced World Cup draw, England do have that very chance to prosper in France. But this match proved that they need Farrell’s inner innate qualities, first to draw them together and then to get the best from each other. This England played with Farrell’s snarl and snap and drive and energy on Saturday, very much in the manner that Ireland have done, with the equally feisty Johnny Sexton directing operations or, similarly, with Big Daddy Andy providing that mix of composure, combativeness and reassurance.
Jack Willis was a real force of nature and gave the sort of display that finally and firmly announces him as a high-grade international flanker.
There can be no other reason to explain the uptick in England’s performance from one week to the next. Owen Farrell made it happen. Sure, Ireland were nervous beyond measure, all too aware of the magnitude of the occasion, their first Grand Slam to be claimed on home soil, Sexton’s last championship match, St Patrick’s weekend, free Guinness for the entire city if they pulled it off ( sorry, made that last bit up, but you get the drift of the frenzy of expectation) but Ireland were as error-strewn and uncertain across the opening 40 minutes as they had been in many a long time.
Their haplessness was partly self-induced, partly caused by England’s relish for the scrap. Jack Willis was a real force of nature and gave the sort of display that finally and firmly announces him as a high-grade international flanker. Willis has a voracious appetite for work allied to a rugby intelligence that enables him to make good decisions.
The RFU have not made many right moves of late and the one thing they can do immediately is to revisit their insistence that they will not pick from outside the Premiership. It would be a madness to deprive yourself of the services of a Willis (along with several others). That rule needs scrapping. And now.
There was a far more resolute showing from the pack across the board with back-to-back scrum penalties at the start of the second half a promising indicator of improvement in that phase.
Jack van Poortvliet has not yet nailed down the No 9 shirt and getting that conundrum sorted will be one of Steve Borthwick’s targets in the coming months.
The second-row is still not as dominant as you would like it to be. The lineout needs much work. Maro Itoje will benefit from a pre-World Cup camp to get back that rage while Courtney Lawes may find himself alongside him rather than in the back-row.
Jack van Poortvliet has not yet nailed down the No 9 shirt and getting that conundrum sorted will be one of Steve Borthwick’s targets in the coming months. The Farrell-Tuilagi-Slade axis can do a job as we always knew it could and would.
England have so much to do still, so much ground to make up. But at last they are back in the ball game. It may be an underwhelming sort of accolade but it pretty much sums up where England are at. On this Six Nations form they are no more than making up the numbers in the champion stakes.
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