The ceremony was bittersweet, the trophy heavy, England’s smiles thin and unconvincing. They won the title with a defeat, their first in a year, five months and 16 days. Their last loss was to Australia at Twickenham in October 2015. So it was an unfamiliar feeling and, judging by they way they looked and the words they spoke, the players did not find it had improved too much in the time since they last experienced it. For a chunk of the team it was a new sensation. Maro Itoje, Ben Te’o, Elliot Daly, Kyle Sinckler and Nathan Hughes have won 44 caps between them but this was still the first time they had lost an international match.
One had to wonder how Eddie Jones was going to spin it. It turned out he was a lot more gracious in defeat than he had been when his team beat Italy at Twickenham a few weeks back. “You have these days,” Jones said. “Ireland played superbly. They were too good for us.”
It was not so long ago that Jones was explaining his theory that England’s distinct advantage over most other sides is that they possess a rare combination of power, pace and skill. Other teams, he said, might have one or two of those qualities but England have all three. And, honed over the years, he hopes the mix will make them the best team in the world. But on Saturday they ran into a team every bit as powerful, every bit as quick and every bit as skilful.
Ireland looked, at last, a lot like the team that finished the All Blacks’ winning streak with that famous 40-29 victory in Chicago last year. They must wish every team they played was on an unbeaten 18-game run. For the first 40 minutes England did not figure. A sole penalty aside, the only impression they made was the dent they left in Johnny Sexton, who was targeted for a couple of hard, late tackles by James Haskell and Itoje.
Sexton has a masochistic streak. He shrugged both blows off and got back to running the game. In that first half Ireland had three-quarters of the possession and three-quarters of the territory. They did not leave England anything much to do but tackle, 101 times altogether, and England clung on to a fingernail grip on the game, 10-3 down at the break.
Some wondered if they were flat, struggling to lift themselves because they had already won the championship. But that is a poor excuse for any side, let alone one coached by a tough nut like Jones. Instead it seemed that they simply found themselves overwhelmed by the intensity of Ireland’s play and, perhaps, the atmosphere within the Aviva Stadium, where the crowd were a lot louder than they had been at any other ground England have played in lately.
The match began in some confusion, everyone a little disoriented because of a delay to the kick-off while waiting for the final whistle in Wales’ match against France. Then, while the players milled around in their own halves, an announcement came over the public address that there had been a late change to Ireland’s line-up. Jamie Heaslip was out injured, and the back line had been rearranged so CJ Stander moved back to No8 and Peter O’Mahony came in at No6.
These were only little things, it is true, but the cumulative effect still felt unsettling. O’Mahony presented a different set of problems at the lineout and went on to be man of the match.
After all that the opening minutes were a mêlée, a whirlwind of staggering hits, wayward passes and cunning kicks. The best of these made by Sexton, who followed a grubber through England’s line with a high, hanging garryowen into their 22, that led to Ireland’s first three points. He sent another penalty into touch soon after and Ireland rose to a ferocious pitch of intensity.
They drove themselves on in small bursts , battering England back towards their line. Ireland turned the game into a close-quarter confrontation. England reeled back and showed only in fits and starts, a cute chip from Owen Farrell here, a deft break by Daly there.
It was nothing that added up to anything much. In all the confusion their play became scrappy and they started to make mistakes.
When Farrell kicked a penalty early in the second half, there seemed a little desperation in the cheer that rang up from the English fans, so glad were they to have something at last to celebrate. Soon after, when England got their maul rolling, there was even a chorus of Swing Low, quickly drowned out by hoots, whistles and The Fields of Athenry.
At this point Jones believed his team would win and England had, indeed, composed themselves and gained a measure of control. But the match had become a fight for inches, every last little bit of ground gained came at exorbitant cost of energy and effort. And for all their hard work they could still not get far into the Irish 22. They made too many mistakes and were turned over too often.
England’s “finishers”, as Jones calls them, could not save them. Rain was pouring down now, the pitch slick, the ball greasy. And the match slipped from England’s grasp, along with the grand slam and the record 19th victory. They were outfought by a team who had, one imagined, been waiting a long while for the opportunity to prove that England are not the only side with power, pace and skill in Europe.
What is more, in these 80 minutes Ireland added another quality to add to the mix: an unbreakable spirit. The game finally ended when Mike Brown knocked the ball on. Garry Ringrose, standing nearby, did not celebrate but patted Brown on the shoulder and offered him a word of sympathy. The gesture said plenty.
It had been a hell of a Test.