Analysis: Ireland's nightmare opening minutes set tone in Dublin defeat

Joe Schmidt’s men were sluggish from the off as England struck powerfully and intelligently.

Tús maith, leath na hoibre.

Some of the memorable comebacks we’ve seen in rugby over the years would tell us that a good start isn’t quite half the battle but Ireland have felt the stinging pain of bad starts a handful of times in the Joe Schmidt era.

James Ryan dejected after the game Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

To Argentina at the 2015 World Cup, Wales in the 2015 Six Nations and New Zealand in Dublin in 2016, we can now add yesterday’s defeat to England.

The sense of England being the more focused and motivated was clear within the opening minutes of the game, as well as the feeling that Eddie Jones’ team were better-prepared than Joe Schmidt’s.

Ireland did recover to take the lead for a period of five minutes in the first half but the damaging start underlined many of the themes that would dominate the game.


Every single one of England’s restarts, the kick-off included, targeted the same zone of the pitch – wide on Ireland’s right on the 22-metre line.


This is the zone Keith Earls occupies and the English intent in kicking to here seemed to be about tying the Ireland right wing into carrying, therefore reducing his effectiveness as a chaser on Conor Murray’s exiting box kicks if Schmidt’s side kept the ball infield.

The quality of Owen Farrell’s kick-off, which hangs in the air for more than four seconds, means Earls has to deal with an early big hit from the chasing Maro Itoje.

England were particularly intent on leaving a physical mark on Earls in this game – and did so twice illegally, as well as through this legal pressure – and he departed injured at half-time.


As we can see above, Farrell’s kick and Itoje’s hit leave Earls [green] grounded close to the touchline, meaning Ireland need to play infield to create an angle for their exit kick and also get primary chaser Earls back to his feet.

Scrum-half Conor Murray fires the ball infield to Peter O’Mahony to carry in the middle of a three-man pod.


We get another early example of England’s physical dominance of the game in this carry, as Mako Vunipola hammers into O’Mahony to deny him any progress, with the abrasive 20-year-old Tom Curry assisting in the tackle.

O’Mahony’s main job here is to ensure the ball is recycled cleanly but the win of inches from loosehead Vunipola – who made a sensational 27 tackles yesterday – is symbolic of what is to come.


England’s John Mitchell-driven defence made 48 dominant tackles – essentially when the defence drives the ball-carrier backwards – in this game, whereas Ireland managed only eight.

England attempt to counter-ruck after Vunipola’s tackle here, testing Ireland’s ruck security and further underlining their physical intent, but Murray is able to build a strong screen and kick clear to touch 35 metres out from the Ireland tryline.

Alert lineout 

As the ball crosses the plane of touch and lands into Jonny May’s hands [white below], we can see that England hooker Jamie George [red] is already demanding a new ball from one of the ball boys.


England’s intent is to immediately strike at Ireland and they do so with great effect, as George releases his lineout throw just 10 seconds after the ball has gone into touch.

The speed of this lineout from England catches a sleepy and unfocused Ireland off-guard.

As we can see below, just as George releases his throw, Schmidt’s side actually have too many players in the lineout – defending five against four.


Cian Healy [white] and CJ Stander [red] are still retreating towards 10 metres behind the lineout and are not yet even in the defensive line.

With some clever dummy movement from Itoje and co. dragging the Ireland forwards towards the touchline, George floats the ball over the back of the lineout for Manu Tuilagi to power at Ireland.


Giving Tuilagi a clear one-on-one early in the game is something Ireland would have wanted to avoid but their disorganisation leaves Josh van der Flier in that situation against the fast-moving England centre.

Van der Flier completes a low tackle but England get the early gainline, when a strong double tackle might have made a difference.

England’s second phase on this pre-rehearsed strike play is intelligent too. Schmidt is deservedly renowned as a brilliant coach off set-piece but Jones had the better of that area in yesterday’s game, with England scoring from three set-piece platforms.

Jones’ team look set to continue their attack to the openside in this instance, with Kyle Sinckler and Mako Vunipola [red] running hard around the corner, but instead Farrell [yellow] switches back underneath the ruck at a late stage.


Ireland have numbers set on the shortside, but England then add another switch as May goes back under Farrell and targets the fringe of the ruck – as Jones’ team did several times in this game.

As May cuts back [red below], his team-mates ahead of the ball are attempting to make life easier for him.

Billy Vunipola impedes van der Flier [white] and Itoje does the same to Cian Healy [yellow].


This kind of subtle blocking is something Ireland have excelled at under Schmidt but they were second best in this area yesterday.

England also managed to create obstruction in front of aerial contests to help them to many important wins in that department. Schmidt complained about this post-match but his words were rather ironic given how good Ireland usually are at this stuff.

Vunipola’s actions in this instance, briefly holding van der Flier, help May to burst forward for more gainline progress even after the Ireland openside recovers to tackle.


England have broken into the Ireland 22 in possession inside the opening 48 seconds of the game and they won’t leave without scoring.

Carrying prowess

Their phase play is extremely direct initially, with Sinckler carrying off scrum-half Youngs to the right, beating Stander’s tackle attempt.

England play off 10 next, with Farrell hitting Tuilagi for a second strong carry, although Ireland will have been disappointed not to make an impact on him here.


Ireland’s centres, Bundee Aki and Garry Ringrose [in red above], are alongside each other as Tuilagi takes the ball short off Farrell but they lose the collision.

The work of Henry Slade [yellow] out the back of Tuilagi shouldn’t be discounted here.

Ideally, Ringrose would have come forward with aggressive linespeed to hit Tuilagi on the move, but Slade’s run out the back – providing a possible option for Farrell to pass to – forces Ringrose to sit on his heels slightly.

While Tuilagi is the target here, this ‘second wave’ that Slade provides will be crucial later in the game.

Aki initially marks up on Farrell then drifts to help Ringrose but neither Ireland player lands a good impact and, disappointingly for them, Tuilagi is actually able to offload from the ground, even from a double tackle.


This kind of ‘soak’ tackle was simply too common from Ireland yesterday as they failed to deal with the English ball-carrying power, as well as their energy before and around those carries.

Curry thunders around the corner to carry off Youngs following Tuilagi’s offload, before England shift back to the left.

Ireland’s defensive line is in decent shape by now but, once again, they lose the gainline to England.

As we can see below, Sinckler receives the ball from Youngs in the middle of a three-man pod.


The Harlequins prop, a skillful player, uses the threat of his passing to his advantage here, dummying a tip-on pass to George on his left [indicated in red above].

Out the back door, Farrell is also active [yellow] as a potential threat to Ireland, adding another layer to the decision-making of Ireland’s defence, particularly James Ryan [5], who is opposite Sinckler.

Farrell could be flatter here, but there is some scope for Sinckler to swivel and hit his out-half with a pullback pass. Ryan is also concerned about the possible tip-on and he buys Sinckler’s dummy briefly, even though Devin Toner [4] is alongside him to deal with George.

On Ryan’s inside, Stander [8] is hesitant on the hunt from the inside.


Sinckler, having dummied, ducks low to drive into the carry [green above] and he wins the gainline again through the recovering Ryan and Stander.

This carry and the work of Sinckler on the ball, as well as the shape around him, is symbolic of how England bossed the gainline – not just through sheer power.

With another rapidly recycled breakdown, Youngs scoops the ball and pops off his shoulder to the busy Jack Nowell, who has worked in off his right wing. 

Nowell is a powerful specimen but it’s an opportunity for Ireland to gain back some slight momentum in the tackle. 

O’Mahony and van der Flier fail to do so in the initial hit but they are finally able to slow England’s recycle speed with a wrestling tackle. It leaves Ireland’s defence in good shape once again, but England score on the next phase.


Jones’ men play off Farrell at 10 on this scoring phase, with the out-half opting to hit Billy Vunipola on a direct line.

Note again that Slade [yellow] is offering a viable back-door option. England did this consistently well, whereas Ireland’s options out the back of ball-carriers were often unconvincing or simply not present.

Vunipola carries with power and as we can see below, Toner [yellow] slips beyond the tackle, but Aki [red] hammers into the collision to stop the England number eight in his tracks.


As Aki fights to drive Vunipola backwards, Toner gets back to his feet in behind Vunipola and latches onto the ball, as we can see below.


Clearly, Toner is in a good position to effect a choke tackle, greatly slow England’s recycle from the tackle or, at the very least, prevent an offload.

Referee Jerome Garces gives no indication that a maul has formed before Toner latches onto the ball – Garces gives no verbal communication at all – but the Ireland second row seems to fear conceding a penalty and decides to vacate the contest.

As we can see below, that suddenly leaves Vunipola free to offload the ball back to Youngs.


Should Toner have clung onto the ball? Ireland’s discipline is one of their key strengths – they conceded only four penalties in this game to England’s nine – but Toner could have pushed the limits of Garces’ decision-making a little more here.

The arrival of the second England player into this contest – a maul needs a ball carrier plus one player from each team, bound together and all on their feet – is almost simultaneous to Toner latching onto the ball. 

Fine margins, but England play away off the offload.

Farrell has been scanning to his left during the Vunipola/Aki contest and is ready to take advantage of Ireland being caught off-guard once again.

Finishing blow

Even with the offload, Ireland look well set to defend their right-hand side.


There is certainly no major numbers-up attacking scenario for England, with Robbie Henshaw in position to take last man Johnny May from the backfield.

But a combination of brilliance from Farrell and poor defending from Ireland combine to send May over to score the opening try.

As we can see below, Murray gets left slightly behind the advancing Ringrose and Earls either side of him.


Earls has opted to shoot up aggressively, something that’s certainly not rare for Ireland’s edge defenders to do.

We’ve seen them get try-scoring success from such decisions in the recent past, picking off opposition passes for intercept scores.

But the danger of that tactic is underlined here as Earls shoots up into Farrell’s passing channel but is caught out by an exceptional pass.

Earls appears to read Tuilagi as the target of Farrell’s skip pass beyond Curry but the England out-half has actually identified the space outside Earls and opts for a sublime double skip pass.


Click here if you cannot view the clip above

Watching Farrell’s scanning in the clip above is educational, with the England playmaker making his decision on the move as he assesses Ireland’s defence.

He aligns flat to the Irish defence – as England have been throughout this passage – to put his skills further under pressure.

Even as Youngs is passing the ball to Farrell, the out-half is having one final glance at Earls’ positioning, reading that the Ireland wing is coming up hard and is defensively narrow, leaving space outside.

It still requires a technically exceptional bullet pass from Farrell on the double skip as he plants and delivers – not needing to fix defenders and pass on the move.

With Farrell’s pass finding fullback Elliot Daly, England are into a two-on-one situation against Henshaw.


We can see Ringrose [yellow] doing his utmost to work across from the inside but it’s nigh-on impossible for Henshaw [white] not to commit onto the straight-running Daly here, allowing the England fullback to calmly find May, who finishes through the despairing diving tackle of Ringrose.

Farrell, who was superb throughout, nails the touchline conversion for a 7-0 lead with only three minutes on the clock and then the next minute sees England demonstrating how they will go about bossing the kicking battle in this game too.

High and wise

Ireland’s restart focus for much of this game was on the right-hand side of England’s 22, where Itoje claims Sexton’s kick after the May try.

England play one phase infield to set up a better position to exit and then we see the first box kick from Youngs, who excelled in this area.

His right-footed kick hangs in the air for more than four seconds and lands around 25 metres upfield, allowing May to get underneath it.


Meanwhile, Ireland fullback Henshaw is coming from deep in the backfield to get underneath Youngs’ box kick.

It’s an early test for a man who hadn’t started a game at fullback in almost two years and he comes up short.

Or more accurately, Henshaw doesn’t get as far underneath the ball as he needs to do to win it.

Earls could possibly do a little more to aid Henshaw’s cause here with his kick ‘escort’ on May – delaying his chase – but the England wing gets around him and into the contest.

As we can see below, Henshaw leaves the ground too early, leaping off his left foot almost five metres in front of where the ball is dropping to.


The result of Henshaw leaving the ground early is that he is already descending from his jump as the ball comes towards the ground.

May has timed his jump better and arrives from a leaping position slightly closer to the landing point of the ball, meaning he is above Henshaw in the aerial contest – as we can see below.


May’s leading left knee allows him to physically dominate the contest too. While May doesn’t win the ball cleanly, he gets a hand to it as the off-balance Henshaw does the same from underneath, the Irishman knocking the ball on in the process.

It’s the first aerial defeat for Henshaw on an evening when he will lose three more – as well as having a couple of wins under the high ball. 

Big moments like the one above are important in the psychological momentum of games, however, and Ireland took another early blow in that sense as May helped England to regather Youngs’ first box kick.

Open backfield

Youngs’ next involvement is equally superb as he takes full advantage of Henshaw being absent from the backfield.

Ireland, once again, are sluggish in reacting, as no one drops back to cover the space Henshaw has left behind to come and compete for the aerial ball.

As we can see below, Youngs [yellow] immediately gets back on the ball after the regather and a carry from George, looking to exploit the space.


Earls and Henshaw [white] are now attempting to track back but they’re late in dropping off from the frontline.

Jacob Stockdale is wide on the left-hand side of Ireland’s defence and can’t sweep across to get to Youngs’ excellent kick, which rolls into touch in the Irish 22.


Now, this kick is of a different style to many of the remainder of England’s 33 kicks from hand in this game but it’s an early demonstration of what was to come in terms of the visitors finding grass in Ireland’s backfield.

Jones’ team were superb with their kicking and exploited the Ireland back three on several important occasions in this game – which we will look at in a separate article.

This early effort from Youngs, taking advantage of Henshaw vacating the backfield and Ireland reacting poorly to their first aerial loss, pinned Ireland back into their 22 once again.

Analysis by Simon Gleave of Gracenote Sports shows that England limited Ireland to a miserly three entries into the English 22.

As we know, Ireland are ruthlessly effective inside the opposition 22 but England’s kicking game played a major role in preventing Ireland from getting into that area of the pitch more than three times.

This kick from Youngs sent Ireland scurrying backwards and capped off a horror show of an opening four minutes for Schmidt’s team.

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