HOPES of a resurgence in the fortunes of the Irish rugby team were well and truly extinguished on Sunday afternoon at Twickenham when a rampant England dispatched them with relative ease, on a 24-12 scoreline.
The hope was that without the Vunipola brothers in the starting line-up that England would not be at their most physically imposing state. This turned out to be not the case, however, with England winning all the collisions, and driving Ireland back time and time again, both in attack and defence.
When Ireland had the ball, in the first half especially, England just blitzed them and the Irish attack had no answers, as they lost yard after yard as they attempted to go through the phases. Ireland have become much too predictable in attack now, and good defensive coaches can neutralise them easily enough. New attack coach Mike Catt has a lot of work to do in this sector.
The Irish management will have huge questions to answer for their defensive alignment in the first half, as they were left completely vulnerable to kicks through by the England half backs. Having one player sweeping in the back field at this level is never going to be enough, and England duly capitalised. The individual errors from Jonathan Sexton and Jacob Stockdale did not help, but the defensive set up would have contributed to the panic that yielded the Irish errors.
Ultimately it was the two tries that they conceded in that first half from Irish errors that proved the difference, even if Ireland were always second best.
It was a truly disastrous start from Ireland’s captain Jonathan Sexton, who missed his first attempted tackle on Manu Tuilagi, and then made a compete hash of Ben Young’s grubber kick in the ninth minute, which allowed England out-half George Ford to dot down for the easiest of tries.
Then he went and missed the simplest of penalties in front of the England posts in the fourteenth minute. An experienced No. 10 might have been looking at the bench at that point. As quarter hours go, it was easily the worst of Sexton’s illustrious career.
Ireland need to face the reality that Sexton is no longer the player he was. Ireland coach Andy Farrell made a huge error in making him his captain, as he will not want to drop his captain in the middle of their first tournament together. This is now something that simply must happen though. Ireland must move forward, and Sexton is not the man to lead this revival.
Ireland deserve some degree of credit for stopping the rot in the second half. The first half had gone so badly, at 17-0 down, that it could well have gotten ugly. To lose in the end by only twelve was a sign of character and pride, but in truth Ireland were never in this tie, as hopes of a Triple Crown went out the window very early.
The two wins over Scotland and Wales created a false dawn in Irish rugby. They were just two regulation home wins against average sides though, and in the first proper test against England at Twickenham Ireland were found seriously wanting.
On Saturday France were able to back up their two home wins with a big win on the road in Cardiff, but Ireland were not able to follow suit.
Before the tournament started the form book suggested that Ireland needed new blood in the key half back positions, and more ballast in the back row, but the status quo was maintained with the out of sorts Jonathan Sexton and Conor Murray being retained.
Yes, Caelan Doris was picked at No. 8 for the Scottish game, but an early head injury meant we still don’t know how the talented Mayo youngster will go at this level from the start.
Ultimately the big calls were not made by Farrell, and now the chickens have come home to roost. It looked as though Ireland’s leadership group had grown too influential in this regard. Farrell must wrest control back in terms of selection. If members of his leadership group do not warrant selection then he must be strong enough not to pick them.
Farrell must be brave now in his selection against Italy. The Italians are not a good side, so it is the perfect opportunity to rest some regulars while giving game time to fringe players who may well be needed in the Stade de France on the final weekend.
You would expect Farrell to select his captain Sexton again - he probably needs the confidence booster – so it would make sense to give Ulster’s John Cooney his long awaited start at scrum half. It would be interesting to see how Ross Byrne would go at outhalf, but do not expect Farrell to be that brave.
You would also expect Caelan Doris to come into the back row, and the entire front row will probably be replaced by their replacements Dave Kilcoyne, Ronan Kelleher and Andrew Porter.
Despite the loss Ireland can, of course, theoretically still win the Championship. While that must be taken into account, you would hope that this fact does not overly influence Andy Farrell’s selection against Italy.
They must not go full conservative and pick all the older players in the race to get the four-try bonus point. The younger brigade must be backed to get the job done.