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# tough day
Ireland's new-look combinations learn about top-level Test rugby in Twickenham
The inexperienced halfback pairing didn’t get anything like an armchair ride.

HAVING SELECTED SOME inexperienced combinations for the trip to Twickenham, Andy Farrell probably knew that everything wasn’t going to go perfectly.

This was what the Autumn Nations was supposed to be about after all – finding out more about his squad and seeing if some of his players were up to the task.

A halfback pairing of Jamison Gibson-Park and Ross Byrne was certainly very different – this was the first time since 2011 that either Conor Murray or Johnny Sexton hadn’t started against England – and they learned plenty about how tough top-level Test rugby is. It’s certainly nothing like the armchair ride they sometimes get with Leinster.

On his second Test start, Gibson-Park had some nice moments like his snipe and offload for Keith Earls’ first-half break, which should have led to a try, while some of his box-kicking was good. However, his afternoon ended with an overhit kick that rolled dead when there was real opportunity to pressure England.

25-year-old Byrne, also making his second Test start, was unable to have a major impact on the game as the English defence dominated but it is worth remembering that Sexton has had similar issues against Eddie Jones’ side in the very recent past.

Byrne standing deep and quickly shifting the pass on without moving forward was very reminiscent of Sexton in February. Against England’s linespeed, playing with depth is understandable when looking to get outside them, as Ireland did only on a few occasions, but Byrne still might have carried more than once even for the sake of variety.

The Leinster out-half very nearly set up a try for Chris Farrell with a smart grubber kick but would have been disappointed not to be more accurate with an early crossfield kick.

“I thought he did well, got a bit of cramp at the end,” said Farrell of Byrne. “It is tough isn’t it – when they did opt to kick, you were getting man and ball.

“With the wingers in the ruck or whoever is in the ruck and you are setting up another play up and that goes backwards, it is tough playing as a fly-half and I suppose that is what you’re talking about regarding [the difference in] Pro14 and top-line international rugby.”

irelands-ross-byrne-kicks-to-touch Billy Stickland / INPHO Ross Byrne got his second Test start at out-half. Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

With the lineout struggling so badly, Ireland’s halfbacks were never likely to look in control of the game.

That set-piece was being run by 24-year-old James Ryan in a pack that was clearly missing of the kind of cohesion England have built in recent years. Ryan will have learned a huge amount about calling under intense pressure on the same day he was also named Ireland captain for the first time – those facts underlining the Irish inexperience.

22-year-old hooker Ronan Kelleher, making his second Test start, had a tough job and while some of Ireland’s options could certainly have been more sympathetic, he will still be disappointed with a couple of his own throws. The Leinster man has lots of potential and should be better for the experience.

Meanwhile, Andrew Porter’s fourth consecutive start at tighthead will have been of benefit – even with Ireland’s scrum having a couple of shaky moments, none more so than the penalty concession before Jonny May’s first try.

His Leinster team-mate, 22-year-old Caelan Doris, was one of the most impressive Irish performers from the number eight jersey as he showed he is very capable of impressing against the best teams on what was his sixth cap. He looks like becoming a real force.

In midfield, Chris Farrell got his 12th cap and demonstrated an ability to win the gainline even against the smothering English defence, but he would have loved to finish off that wonderful chance created by Byrne’s grubber kick. 

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There was inexperience in Ireland’s back three in the shape of fullback Hugo Keenan, getting his second Test start in the number 15 shirt. He misjudged his leap in a demanding one-on-one situation against May for the English wing’s first try but had some decent contributions thereafter, including one excellent aerial win against Elliot Daly just before Gibson-Park kicked dead.

James Lowe’s second Test start will have underlined to him what this level of rugby is all about. He will be disappointed with his work-rate in tracking back for May’s second try and some of his left-footed kicking was scrappy, but he did make strong inroads with ball in hand and had some lovely touches with the boot too. There is plenty of upside there.

irelands-jamison-gibson-park Billy Stickland / INPHO Jamison Gibson-Park had his second start at scrum-half. Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

Farrell will also have been pleased that two of his most experienced players, Peter O’Mahony and Keith Earls, had some good moments.

He would also have been happy that Billy Burns, winning his second cap off the bench, was able to show some class with his chip for Jacob Stockdale’s 18th Test try.

Farrell’s view is that all of these experiences will make Ireland a better team as they look to move forward.

“Some lads starting for the first time at Twickenham against a side that’s playing so well like England, it’s priceless,” said Farrell.

“Even the lads that would be disappointed in their performance tonight, that’s priceless as well.”


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