Saturday 4 February 2023 Dublin: 3°C
Billy Stickland/INPHO A dejected Peter O'Mahony at Twickenham.
# Second best
England are a better team than Ireland and more work is needed to close the gap
Andy Farrell and his coaches must remedy the lineout and breakdown issues that hurt them yesterday.

AN ENGLAND WIN hardly came as a surprise at Twickenham yesterday and the 11-point margin was almost exactly what had been predicted in most quarters, but the sense of inevitability made it no less disappointing for Ireland.

While Andy Farrell spoke with pride of the character in his team’s performance during his post-match media duties, it’s obvious that Ireland would have shipped a hammering without that very basic requirement.

There is no shame in losing to the World Cup finalists away from home but the frustration will be that Ireland’s own shortcomings played into their hands. 

Nowhere was that clearer than at lineout and maul time as Ireland botched at least four on their own throw at important times and often inside the English 22.

Ronan Kelleher’s throw evading Peter O’Mahony towards the tail of the lineout in the 21st minute was the source for Jonny May’s scintillating second try. It was a wondrous solo score but Ireland should be deeply aggrieved about conceding from deep inside the opposition 22 – a rare occurrence at this level.

Out-half Ross Byrne was unable to gather in the scraps as the ball bounced away from the lineout, then Chris Farrell was skinned by May’s sublime footwork before he dinked the ball ahead, while James Lowe’s effort in tracking back was substandard.

The lineout issues weren’t all on Kelleher and his throwing, of course, and England also deserve credit for two steals as they put pressure on, while the inexperience of James Ryan as a caller did seem apparent as the Leinster hooker was asked to fire some demanding darts to the middle and tail under pressure.

But the entire lineout and maul drill seemed off for Ireland and given that it was so damaging in Paris in the Six Nations too only very recently, assistant coach Simon Easterby will be feeling pressure to turn things around quickly in that area.

finlay-bealham-dejected-after-the-game Billy Stickland / INPHO Ireland were second best at Twickenham. Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

The set-piece has been an unhappy one against England on the last four occasions and even for their first try yesterday, penalty concessions and scrum and maul time were the ‘ins’ for the home side into the Ireland 22,  where Owen Farrell used a penalty advantage to give May a one-on-one contest against Hugo Keenan wide on the right. 

Those five-pointers aside, England didn’t do much in an attacking sense as they instead looked entirely happy to smother the life out of Ireland with their superb defence, making 238 tackles as Ireland held possession for 19 minutes and 38 seconds. Those are very high numbers indeed.

Ireland actually started the game brightly and three kicks behind England applied pressure but Farrell’s men then seemingly became over-focused on breaking the defence down with ball in hand. With Byrne set up deep against the English linespeed, there were passages where the defence seemed comfortable.

Not until later in the game, first with Byrne’s grubber for a Farrell near-try and then the consolation score from Jacob Stockdale off Billy Burns’ excellent chip kick did we really see more of that attacking kicking used effectively. 

Farrell could point out that Ireland made six linebreaks to England’s three and offloaded five times to England’s one, while he could argue that had Ireland been able to finish when Keith Earls broke off Jamison Gibson-Park’s snipe and offload in the 30th minute, it might have been a very different story.

The truth is we will never know but most will have come away from this game sensing that England probably had a little more if they needed it.

That Earls linebreak left Ireland only a few metres out but Billy Vunipola produced a questionable turnover penalty – there was little evidence of a clear release – in one of the damaging circumstances of a breakdown turnover against Ireland.

Pascal Gaüzère’s decision-making did perhaps lean towards rewarding England [although they actually conceded 13 penalties to Ireland's 12] but that tends to happen when a team is generally looking the more dominant overall. Ireland’s own lack of accuracy in their cleanout work was obviously a major contributing factor too, leaving Farrell and co. with another area that needs attention.

In the end, we come away from this game with the main pre-match impression confirmed: England are a better team than Ireland. 

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james-ryan-dejected-after-the-game Billy Stickland / INPHO James Ryan is clapped off by England. Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

The vehement message from within the Ireland camp was that the gap is closing.

“I thought that was a much better performance than the last time we were here,” said James Ryan after his first outing as Ireland captain.

“We had a go and we definitely fired some shots. I thought the team spirit was really good. We’re just going to build on that and next time we’re going to look to fire even more shots.

“So, yeah, I thought there was good character there today. I think we’ll get loads from it.”

Next up is a clash with Georgia in Dublin that seems unlikely to tell us anything new about this Ireland team.

The 2021 Six Nations fixtures against England and France can’t come around quick enough. Whether Ireland will have closed the gap as they look forward to home advantage remains to be seen.

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