England’s young guns took a significant step towards becoming the world beaters that they dream of being with an incredibly gutsy victory over Ireland – but it could have easily been another agonising loss.
A thrilling and brutal contest kept a capacity and noticeably vociferous Twickenham crowd enthralled from start to finish with momentum swinging one way, then the other and then back again.
Apparently vulnerable against a vastly more experienced rival, who boasted the world’s most capped player in their ranks, and one that was also chasing a Triple Crown and attempting to keep their Grand Slam hopes alive, it was in fact England who displayed the superior strength of mind and body to claim a memorable victory.
But they will not be celebrating too hard as they are some way from the finished article. The ease with which they were carved open at the start of the second half by a Joe Schmidt-authored set move that had more moving parts than your average Swiss timepiece will warrant a detailed review in the coming days.
The lack of experience with the squad was also painfully evident on more than one occasion with seemingly glaring overlaps wasted – despite the collective roar of a Twickenham crowd determined to highlight the advantage.
Winger Jonny May’s failure to ground the ball when a try appeared there for the taking may have been largely due to the superb defensive work of Andrew Trimble and Conor Murray but his wild pass to an unaware Mike Brown in the second half when he should have simply taken the ball into touch screamed Test match novice.
It what was always going to be a tight contest, the decision by Owen Farrell to kick to the corner with a penalty with the first half in the closing stages and with his side holding a narrow 3-0 lead will also come under scrutiny. England failed to capitalise and the Irish thrived on the let-off by taking control a the start of the second half.
While that call will most likely have come from his captain Chris Robshaw, Farrell must take full responsibility for the alarming challenge that could so have easily decided this game. The England fly-half crashed into Ireland scrum-half Murray as he cleared the ball midway through the first half and he was incredibly lucky to escape a yellow card for a no-arms tackle that was also fractionally late.
His latest moment of madness cost his side half the length of the field in terms of territory, in a game where every inch was fiercely fought over, and possession at the resulting lineout but it could have been much worse had he been sent to the sin-bin.
Any side intent on world domination must be up for the physical battle and there is a need for characters prepared to go toe-to-toe but cool heads are required at all times. Controlled aggression is the key and you just cannot have your playmaker and kicker acting so recklessly. You never see an All Black acting so recklessly, undermining the collective effort and jeopardising the chance of success.
But thankfully for their Six Nations chances and longer-term success, their determination trumped their mental failings – thanks in part to the shortcomings of their opponents.
With Ireland in control of the contest, the most accomplished fly-half in the European game – Jonathan Sexton – gifted possession and momentum back to the hosts by putting a re-start out on the full. Within a few phases, Brown was cutting a swathe through the Irish defence on a superb line and the only person who could keep pace was scrum-half Danny Care who was rewarded with the game-defining try.
But with a quarter of the game remaining the contest was far from over. Ireland rallied as you would expect of a side containing such warriors as O’Driscoll and Paul O’Connell but they were continually frustrated by an England side that has clearly learnt the lessons of their agonising loss to France in Paris in round one.
Ireland’s precision failed them with the otherwise telepathic understanding between O’Driscoll and Sexton broken by England’s heroic scramble defence with the likes of Joe Launchbury and Courtney Lawes leading the lung-busting effort.
But as impressive their physical endeavour, it was their mental resolve and ability to weather the blows and then force their way back into the contest that will dominate the headlines and fuel their belief in the weeks and months to come.
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