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If you can't change the result - then change the players

That’s three defeats on the spin now for Ireland against England. Dropping a third of the side is no longer an area for debate but a necessity.

Ireland left looking for answers after a bad day.
Ireland left looking for answers after a bad day.
Image: Billy Stickland/INPHO

IT DIDN’T TAKE long for the clean-up to begin. By 10pm last night, the streets circling around Twickenham’s stadium were suddenly filled with road-sweepers clearing away the discarded beer cans, crisp packets and half-eaten burgers.

Some rubbish will leave a stench for a lot longer, though. That first-half from Ireland yesterday was awful, the worst they’ve played since August, when a World Cup warm-up game turned into a massacre. Oh, that was at Twickenham as well.

Perhaps we’re noticing a theme here. No matter who is in charge of Ireland, England have figured out the formula. Yesterday was their third win over Ireland in 12 months, the 24-12 scoreline an inaccurate reflection of their dominance.

We just got beaten by a better team,” Irish winger, Andrew Conway, truthfully said afterwards. “They were strong, they were good, they had an impressive kicking game, had big ball carriers and we just didn’t deal with the bounce of the ball. When you go 17 points behind at Twickenham, you are in trouble.”

You certainly are. Seven points down after eight minutes – when Johnny Sexton mishandled the ball in the in-goal area, allowing George Ford to score, the possibility of Ireland settling into this game disappeared when Sexton missed a straightforward penalty shortly afterwards.

Further mistakes would follow from the Ireland captain. Twice Ireland had penalty advantages; twice Sexton kicked wildly and wasted them.

jonathan-sexton Has anyone seen where my form has gone to? Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

By 24 minutes, Ireland were in deeper trouble, Jacob Stockdale scrambling around the in-goal area with all the grace of a sleep walker looking for a light switch in the dark. This time Elliot Daly read the bounce correctly. England, 14-0 up and cruising, had the game won.

“I accept the fact they were all over us at the start but if you take away those two errors we made behind the goal line, you’re taking away 14 points,” Conway said. “That makes a difference.”

So did other things. Ireland were meant to win the battle of the skies but instead it was England who came out tops in this department, Jordan Larmour’s inexperience exposed. We could go on. Ireland were flat in attack; their half-backs looked old, their pack got beaten up, their positional play in the back-field was disastrous.

We’ll see where we went wrong,” Conway said. “We will have a few frank discussions and make sure everyone is aligned on the same page. It is not the end of the season. It is not a final. We’re not going on our summer holidays. We still have got the opportunity, all going well, to put in a better performance in a couple of weeks against Italy. We are not out of the competition.”

But in that first-half yesterday they appeared out of their depth and when you add this defeat to the one to New Zealand in the World Cup, not to mention last year’s championship defeats to England and Wales, you’re beginning to see a pattern emerging. Namely, that when Ireland start poorly and lose the collisions, they just do not have the clout to come back. “Look, Twickenham is a tough place to come,” Conway said. “We have all played long enough to know how momentum can go with or against you in games.

“You feel the waves of attacks come at you. That’s what happened yesterday. They are really good at mixing the game up – (Owen) Farrell and (George) Ford are excellent game-managers, then they have the heavies like (Courtney) Lawes and (Manu) Tuilagi who get them across the gainline. They have a balance to their play. It’s a tough place to come, Twickenham.”

manu-tuilagi-celebrates-after-the-game Manu Tuilagi celebrates another easy win over Ireland. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

To their credit, England weren’t generous hosts. All their big players delivered. Maro Itoje was immense, so too Lawes. Tuilagi’s charges through midfield sucked in the Ireland defence; the kicking game of Youngs, Ford and Farrell exposed the gaps left in behind.
“Things can change quickly in matches, a turnover, a big hit, a win in the air – we just didn’t get enough of those moments yesterday,” Conway said.

“Sometimes when you are under that pressure, you just have to dig in, and take it, and take some more of it, and try and dish it back, find one of those momentum shifts and get the ball down the pitch and away from the danger zone. Playing in our half is tough against guys as good as England’s players. They pinned us back; they put it up in the air and we didn’t deal with it properly. It was impressive by them I must say.”

You can’t say Ireland were impressive, though. James Ryan put up admirable resistance, the bench all put in a decent shift – every one of them looking lively and if you want to scrape a positive out of a particularly negative day, the fact Ireland finished the game on top was admirable.

“We need consistency,” Keith Earls, one of the second-half replacements, said. “We didn’t play well against Scotland, did well against the Welsh, were smothered by England yesterday. I know people are expecting grand slams but it’s getting harder and harder to win those.

England were better than us (yesterday). Andy, I enjoy playing under Andy (Farrell), he will always put the blame on himself but he can’t make the players more physical. That’s up to ourselves.”

That may be the case but sometimes the best way for a player to learn about himself is by spending a little time on the sideline, knowing his place isn’t guaranteed.

In this regard, a handful of this Ireland team could do with a prolonged period of self-reflection. It’s time we saw alternative options to Conor Murray, Cian Healy and Jacob Stockdale; Devin Toner’s comeback tour should only be a one-night show; Rob Herring has had a fine championship but Ronan Kelleher deserves a chance against the Italians. We need to see more of Caelan Doris, too. 

caelan-doris-is-tacked-by-ellis-genge-and-joe-launchbury Caelan Doris deserves a chance to start against Italy. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Amid these cries for change, Conway was anxious to make a separate point. “We’re not out of it (this year’s championship),” he said. “We are two from three. We feel good. We’ve Italy next and all going well, we will be going to Paris with a championship on the line. There is a feeling of disappointment but if we combine that (hurt) with a hunger to learn, then we can be better for it.”

They don’t have a choice. The French exam is three weeks away. Some serious swotting is needed in the meantime to pass it.

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Garry Doyle

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