ENGLAND slicing through Scotland seemingly at will made for uncomfortable viewing for Irish fans last weekend.
The team that ended Irish Grand Slam dreams so early were now being carved open, chasing shadows as the English racked up far in excess of the try bonus allocation.
Any shred of hope for a St Patrick’s weekend 6 Nations showdown was dead and buried.
Bus gate was blamed for the poor start in Scotland, the reason for poor finish in Wales; we’re still searching.
England didn’t have the greatest start themselves, however, a lacklustre outing against the French and the laughable antics against the Italians look a distant memory now.
The England juggernaut was at full tilt in Twickenham and the Scots were hapless in their attempts to stop it.
The French and Welsh came the closest, but for poor game management from the men in blue and a poor clearing kick for the men in red this could be an altogether different script. Instead, England look to be steadily improving, with some of their big names returning. The 6 Nations started with Jones missing five of the pack from their stomping success in Australia last summer. Now the Vunipola brothers are emerging from sick bay with war wounds healed, devastating impact subs from the bench as Scotland were adding fatigue to their falters.
While Ireland were celebrating one win against South Africa last summer it was a white wash for Eddy Jones and his charges as they travelled Down Under. Jones was merely amassing numbers and experience to his throng. Now with successive titles already in the bag England are hunting for back to back Grand Slams, a feat not yet completed in the 6 Nations. Ireland, of course, have pride at stake but also desperately want to hold onto their top four ranking in World Rugby, just ahead of Scotland.
If the 2019 World Cup dream is to remain alive for the men in green, the fourth place allows Ireland avoid the New Zealand, England and Australia in the pool stages. However if fifth and sixth place Scotland and Wales have been causing so many issues perhaps our attention has been misdirected.
Schmidt and Best must pick up the pieces and face an English squad brimming with confidence. A hard up defence will play into the hands of the Farrell and Ford, both are kicking options, but equally good with ball in hand and have the luxury of pace in abundance on the exterior.
Defence coach Andy Farrell faces his son and his former employers; surely there is an ace card up his sleeve. Certainly hanging Paddy Jackson as a shooting 10 with George North and Leigh Halfpenny outside did not work out too well.
Donnacha Ryan was dogged in defence, aided by O’Mahony when he came on.
A grit that was refreshing to see. Of course systems and structures are important but sometimes defence is simply about ignorance, and this weekend it faces arrogance. The opening 10 minutes against Wales were intensely bruising, huge hits from McGrath, O’Brien and Henshaw would normally have set the tone for the ensuing battle. In contrast the hits merely appeared to steel Welsh resolve as the home team grew into the encounter.
Irish attack failed to inspire, Henshaw, a human cannon ball last year is failing to find the same space. A return to his more dynamic self of 2 years ago would be a welcome site. Zebo bucks the Schmidt trend of precision with his near-trademark unpredictability and Earls was as sharp as ever.
Tommy Bowe continues his rotten luck and injury hampered season, ankle surgery after mere seconds on the ball last weekend spells another absence for the misfortunate Ulster man. Fergus McFadden comes into the squad, questioning looks as to how he seems to have leapfrogged other potentials. Darren Sweetnam has been one of the stand-out players of the Pro 12, many would love to see him take on the opponents he leaves standing in their international attire. Andrew Conway again travelled as reserve to Wales.
The Sexton loop play won two Heineken Cups, had a part to play in Ireland's 6 Nations success. It is renowned, therefore undoubtedly studied by every opposition. Even Bruce Springsteen changes the play list. It was frustrating to see players from the bench repeat this move; surely bench players should be adding variety. Substitutes are the coaches chance to get messages onto the pitch, a chance to execute a change in game plan if that is what is required.
Irish rugby seemed in fine fettle last November, home advantage in Chicago and finally overturned the rugby giants. With Australia and South Africa toppled too surely Ireland had found their stride. It has faltered at this particular hurdle. A kicking territorial game isn’t worth much if your lineout is misfiring. Defensive systems are futile without sustained aggression. Saturday offers a chance at retribution, the score line is inconsequential, the performance non-negotiable.