No world No 1 ranking for Ireland this week, unless the measurement is injury concerns. With two warm-up games against Wales still to come they are currently down to their third-choice fly-half, saw their experienced loosehead prop Cian Healy hobble off with a painful-looking sprain to his right ankle and were briefly in danger of losing their kingpin scrum-half Conor Murray as well.
Never mind the embarrassingly lopsided scoreline and the missed opportunity it represented in terms of curtailing Wales’s stay at the top of World Rugby’s official pecking order. Seeing Murray prone on the turf, felled by a non-penalised leading elbow to the jaw from Jonny May, was absolutely Ireland’s worst-case scenario with the World Cup just around the corner, particularly with Johnny Sexton and Joey Carbery already sidelined. A couple of minor knocks will always be par for the course; losing three key tactical cogs for their vital early pool games in Japan would be the most grievous of blows.
The gale of visiting relief when Murray returned to the field shortly before half-time after his compulsory head injury assessment was arguably Ireland’s best moment of a hot, chastening south-west London afternoon. It was only temporary: by the time the players re-emerged after the interval Murray had vanished again. A precautionary measure, maybe, but Joe Schmidt’s painstaking World Cup plans are already being sorely tested.
Sexton has not played since damaging a thumb in training in June and, it now emerges, has subsequently picked up a leg injury behind closed doors which the Ireland camp has chosen not to publicise. The word is he remains hopeful of being fit for his country’s final warm-up against Wales next month but the 33-year-old is likely to head to Japan with, at best, limited recent match practice.
That might not matter if Carbery had not suffered an ankle ligament injury against Italy which continues to threaten his participation. Ross Byrne and Jack Carty, the two outside-halves on duty here, are both good players but, prior to this weekend, boasted just six Test points between them. And now Murray’s misfortune. Even if both he and Healy heal swiftly, it is all far from ideal.
From Schmidt’s perspective this was also a million miles from the defensive performance he usually demands. Jordan Larmour’s conspicuous failure– not that many would have fancied it – to halt the try-scoring charge of big Joe Cokanasiga was just one of 21 missed Irish tackles in the first half alone. Manu Tuilagi and Maro Itoje are similarly awkward to stop but both crossed the Irish line with relative ease. There was precious little sign of an Irish backstop, put it that way.
The sight of a confident-looking England pulling away to a free-wheeling half-century, even finding time to put Cokanasiga into a lineout, merely compounded the pain. The invincibles of 2018 have been left with plenty to ponder, though no doubts hang over Jacob Stockdale, their world-class winger. The Ulsterman has longer hair these days – he appears to be channeling his inner Shane Horgan – but poses the same familiar deadly threat whenever he chips ahead with his left boot. The only other difference this time was the identity of the try-scorer, a wicked bounce eluding everyone and falling perfectly for Larmour to score.
Precious little, save for Bundee Aki’s 73rd-minute try, went right for Ireland thereafter. The margin of victory means England overtake them in the world rankings and, on this evidence, just one of these two sides has any chance of lifting the Webb Ellis Cup. Only if Schmidt is trying to douse expectations was this a green day to remember.