How England succumbed to streetwise streetfighters Ireland

Charlie Morgan
Standing tall: Peter O'Mahony was exceptional for Ireland

So, for the second time in five months, Ireland ousted a Test team looking for their 19th consecutive victory. This party-pooping occurred in sodden Dublin rather than sun-bathed Chicago, and – on the surface at least – the two matches seemed starkly contrasting.

A 40-29 victory over the All Blacks last November was punctuated by five tries for Joe Schmidt’s side amid long stretches of expansive rugby. On Saturday, a disjointed game descended into chaos at times and Iain Henderson’s first-half surge represented the game’s single five-pointer.

But both Ireland performances married emotion with technical diligence and savvy. This is the story of how they overcame England.

Bespoke defence

The relationship of Owen and Andy Farrell became an omnipresent discussion point in the build-up to this game and the influence of Ireland’s defence coach certainly came to the fore. As a – perhaps the – prominent figure of England’s backroom staff between 2011 and 2015, Farrell senior would have offered Joe Schmidt valuable pre-match insight into attacking traits, preferences and patterns.

As early as the second minute, when this overcooked Ben Youngs kick is spilled by Jared Payne

Payne drop

…the visitors have a scrum inside their opponents’ 22 and a prime platform from which to launch a strike move. Now, Ireland’s defensive structure came under criticism for its narrowness after a tournament-opening loss against Scotland.  

Unperturbed, they have persevered with the same system. Ireland’s midfield trio of Johnny Sexton, Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose are all inside the far post in the screenshot below.

Having seen England lacerate Scotland through the middle, Ireland are challenging their rivals to move the ball wide on a wet day:

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Ben Youngs feeds George Ford and England initiate a screen pattern with Jonathan Joseph hitting an in-to-out line and Owen Farrell fading in behind. Ireland wing Keith Earls responds to this by edging in-field:

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When Ford finds Farrell junior, Payne is the only Ireland defender within 30 metres of the far touchline:

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However, Ringrose fights past the decoy runners to pressurise Farrell. Earls changes direction, drifting onto Mike Brown. Payne lines up Elliot Daly:

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As it happens, Brown cannot take Farrell’s pass…

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…and Ireland’s calculated gamble, covering England’s strengths, has come off. Two minutes later, we see another defensive set tailored to nullify the Eddie Jones template of attack.

It begins as Dylan Hartley throws to Maro Itoje at a six-man lineout. CJ Stander and Rory Best are the individuals to watch. Billy Vunipola, starting in the scrum-half position, advances to initiate a fake-maul – a typical starter play for England, designed to suck in opposition forwards:

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Vunipola immediately bounces back away from the maul, but Stander is waiting for him. Because no maul has formed, he has not needed to retreat behind the back foot:

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The Munster back-rower collars Vunipola. Watch the match clock. It reads 4:50:

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Peter O’Mahony arcs around to help hold Vunipola above the ground as Daly and Hartley try to drive their teammate to the floor:

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Rory Best joins the melee too…

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…and although Vunipola does eventually wrestle the ball to the floor, a whole 10 seconds have elapsed before Youngs can start the next phase with a pass to Courtney Lawes.

The Ireland line is well set. Iain Henderson and Jack McGrath are the men to track here:

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McGrath goes low and Henderson stays high, driving an unbalanced Lawes back behind the gain-line.

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Ireland are proactive on the following phase as well. Sexton presses beyond the ball, forcing carrier Dan Cole back inside towards a welcoming committee of Sean O’Brien, Tadhg Furlong and Best:

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By this point, Vunipola is back at first receiver. Again Sexton shoots up. Again, McGrath and Stander are ready, joined this time by lock Donnacha Ryan:

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McGrath and Ryan take advantage of Vunipola’s upright body position, executing another copybook choke tackle – a technique than won Ireland two impetus-snatching turnovers during the match. Vunipola drops a knee to the floor…

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…causing referee Jerome Garces to call a ruck – meaning Ireland’s tacklers must leave the carrier alone:

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They do, but not before the tackle has lasted another seven seconds. This gives plenty of scope for Ireland to reorganise, and Ford tries a speculative chip. Joe Launchbury advances straightaway from in front of the kicker…

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…and Garces whistles for a penalty to the defending side – just like he did in Cardiff when Daly advanced from in front of Youngs’ clearance:

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Every referee in the sport has their particular nuances. Despite having been overseen by Garces earlier in the tournament, England were not as cute as the hosts in dealing with his interpretations.

Testing officials

It was evidently a preordained ploy for Ireland to tie Owen Farrell, one of England’s integral defensive organisers, into breakdowns whenever possible. The Saracen’s luminous yellow boots provided a glaring visual cue for clearers, who often capitalised.

Here, with Ireland pressing inside the England 22, Peter O’Mahony latches onto carrier Iain Henderson before contact. Farrell is in the defensive line…

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…and though he does not make the tackle, O’Mahony shoots through the ruck to lasso his legs:

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Two phases later, Sexton sends up the excellent Garry Ringrose. Farrell pushes towards the upcoming tackle…

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…where Sexton spears into him:

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Knowing that Farrell is a vital part of England’s defensive operation – perhaps even more important than he himself is to Ireland’s close-quarter attack – Sexton is still holding his 2013 Lions colleague a full seven seconds later:

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When Garces halts the action for a penalty to Ireland, he delegates Farrell’s evident gripe to assistant referee Mathieu Raynal:

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And a frustrated Farrell holds a long conversation with the French touch-judge as Sexton kicks the opening points:

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Sexton’s razor competitive edge and bloody-minded persistence were in evidence the entire 80 minutes. A little further into the first quarter, James Haskell breaks from this scrum…

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…snatching the ball as it bobbles clear from the set piece:

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England forge ahead briefly on the left flank before Daly grubbers into touch. At the stoppage, Sexton is in the ear of Garces straightaway:

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Raw aggression undoubtedly helped Ireland extinguish England’s Grand Slam hopes. However, when the opportunity for their decisive try arose, they were icily clinical.  

Maul of the moment

England did not enjoy their most successful afternoon at the breakdown and some overzealousness from Maro Itoje invites pressure here. He dodges Rory Best’s clear-out…

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…but cannot resist diving through the ruck to take out Kieran Marmion:

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Following a brief discussion between Sexton and Best – with Peter O’Mahony close enough to give his input as a chief lineout coordinator – Ireland opt to go to the corner:

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They are not within striking distance on this occasion, but pound away with narrow carries and are rewarded when a penalty is eked out. Bolstered by a latching Jack McGrath, O’Mahony offers himself:

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Billy Vunipola stands firm to make the tackle…

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…and bounces to his feet before a ruck has formed to compete for the ball – something he is perfectly entitled to do:

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However, Vunipola then loses his balance and falls into Marmion, who does a good job of selling the contact to Jerome Garces:

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Channelling a Serie A footballer, Donnacha Ryan gestures for a yellow card:

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Garces ignores him, choosing instead to explain the offence to a disenchanted Vunipola:

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Ireland kicked for touch from a large share of the penalties they won inside the opposition 22 this Six Nations, and do so again here. Best addresses a six-man lineout…

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…which is initially set up like this – Sean O’Brien in the scrum-half slot with props bookending the formation:

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As Best releases his throw, Jack McGrath loops around to the back towards O’Mahony, who swaps places with CJ Stander:

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The upshot is this formation of two lifting pods, creating enough deception to prevent England from even launching a contester. Tadhg Furlong and Jack McGrath, Ireland’s two best lifters, are either side of O’Mahony, their best jumper…

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…and Best finds his target:

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From here, each forward (labelled with their respective shirt numbers) slots seamlessly into position. O’Mahony transfers the ball to O’Brien and England’s forwards must commit:

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The maul is so tight and powerful though, and wheels towards the openside:

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As Best arcs around to reach the ball, CJ Stander breaks off ahead of the ball, subtly obstructing Joe Launchbury. This leaves Anthony Watson and George Ford – combined weight, 178 kilograms – as England’s sole defenders.

Henderson just about stays on his feet as he sling-shots out of the maul…

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…and uses his two-metre frame to stretch over:

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In his interview with ITV afterwards, Joe Schmidt lauded his team’s opening 25 minutes. Sexton’s conversion meant Ireland emerged from a dominant period with a decent lead. From there on, they held England at arm’s length.

Game management often seems like an abstract concept, even an empty buzzword. But, on the stroke of half-time, Best gives a tangible, intelligent – if a fraction cynical – demonstration of the attribute.

Clock-burning masterclass

This passage starts with some rare front-foot ball for England. George Ford sends a miss-pass to Jonathan Joseph…

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…who slides a kick in behind the Ireland backline for Anthony Watson to chase:

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Jared Payne, assured and decisive in spite of his early mistake, shepherds the ball across the touchline. As it crosses the paint, there are 34 seconds left of the half:

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Watch how Best glances at the game clock on his way to the ball. He then wipes his face with a towel before receiving some attention to a small facial cut:

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By the time he is ready to feed the lineout, the clock is in the red. Peter O’Mahony rises to take the throw…

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…which curiously sails ever-so-slightly off the horizontal. O’Mahony catches the ball on his left pectoral muscle…

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…and Jerome Garces blows his whistle, identifying that the throw is not straight. Maro Itoje celebrates…

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…but Garces then immediately signals for half-time too:

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If he thought Best was acting in a manner contrary to the spirit of the game, whatever that means, Garces might have called an England scrum to be played anyway. Fans of Northampton Saints and Leicester Tigers will remember the 2013 Premiership final when Dylan Hartley was sent off for alleged verbal abuse of Wayne Barnes.

Barnes called that fateful scrum because Northampton’s Stephen Myler kicked a 22 drop-out across the touchline on the full, looking to bring an end to the first half. Law 5.7 does not cover deliberately skewed lineouts, but World Rugby may reconsider after this weekend.

Sexton’s selection

In the second period, Johnny Sexton turned the screw by ensuring Ireland stayed on top of the territorial tussle. That said, the hosts still trusted their handling and ball retention.

Their first meaningful possession after half-time saw them cycle through the phases, varying their attack nicely. When Kieran Marmion finds Peter O’Mahony here…

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…a neat shield play locates Sexton behind the decoy run of Garry Ringrose – an angle that fixes Courtney Lawes:

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Amid a torrent of barely legal collisions, Sexton’s bravery in this match was remarkable. Here, he takes the ball right to the line to commit Owen Farrell before slipping an inside pass to Simon Zebo. Only a quick readjustment from James Haskell stops a line-break:

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Teams are often wary of inviting pressure and overplaying inside their own half, but Ireland were not. Later in the second half, they kept the ball in hand and coaxed penalties out of England.

Here though, Sexton clears downfield after a few more phases:

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Elliot Daly is equal to the task, and his returning kick is wonderfully struck…

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…skipping into touch in the Ireland 22:

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As he chases back, Sexton’s brain is whirring. He knows a full lineout in this area of the pitch will give England a chance to compete through Courtney Lawes and Maro Itoje. Sexton looks up, sees Zebo tracking back to help out…

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…and takes a lineout to himself:                 

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An intrepid run from Zebo brought Ireland out of the 22 and then Sexton slipped in behind Sean O’Brien…

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…before clearing downfield:

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Thanks to the defensive principles outlined at the start of this piece – pressing hard from the outside in to ensure that England could only spread the ball wide with high-risk passes – Ireland forced a turnover when Anthony Watson spilled a lopping ball from George Ford.

The visitors’ maul muscled them back to within a score in the final 10 minutes. However, their hopes took a mortal blow when the superb O’Mahony soared to steal a lineout.

Outjump and organise

John Ryan was stripped and ready to replace Tadhg Furlong before this set piece, but Joe Schmidt wanted one last effort out of his titanic tighthead. Furlong took his place at the front of this lineout, ahead of Peter O’Mahony and replacement lock Devin Toner – an excellent lifter as well as a jumper:

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Tom Wood loops inside Maro Itoje and Joe Launchbury, who both edge forward towards Dan Cole. Launchbury and Cole (labelled L) are the lifters, with Itoje (J) the jumper. O’Mahony watches all of this, and holds his ground…

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…before leaping ahead of Itoje:

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Another angle of the steal shows the full extension of the lifters’ arms that support O’Mahony’s spring:

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Tellingly, Ireland are not content with the steal in isolation. Luke McGrath, another replacement, sums up their diligence and is impressively authoritative in sending Niall Scannell away into midfield:

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This sets up a three-man small carrying pod designed to give McGrath a more sympathetic angle for his clearing kick:

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At the next ruck, O’Mahony and Toner have arced around to bind loosely on the breakdown. As two of the tallest members of Ireland’s pack, they provide a barrier to protect McGrath’s box-kick. Simon Zebo has edged up to chase on the left wing:

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The Leinster scrum-half, making just a second Test appearance, connects well:

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The kick is contestable, coaxing Anthony Watson forward and allowing Zebo to sprint towards the landing point:

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Watson cannot hold on:

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Ireland won a penalty from the next scrum and another McGrath kick pinned England in their own half for the remainder of the contest. An 18-match winning run sank into the soaking turf.

Although this was not the capitulation of Cardiff in 2013, it did feel worryingly similar to another loss against Ireland in 2015. England have honing to do. Even so, many of their playing contingent will still head to New Zealand with the British and Irish Lions. Just as importantly, Eddie Jones can blood promising rookies in Argentina this June when domestic campaigns are done.

Whether or not an encounter against the All Blacks materialises after that, England will have learned a great deal from the 2017 Six Nations. Ireland’s blend of acumen and intensity must be one such lesson.

Pictures courtesy of ITV and the RBS 6 Nations

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