England lineout tactics leaves puzzling questions
Eddie Jones made it clear afterwards; something went wrong with the England lineout. Whether it was a tactic that failed, or a ploy to try and react to the Irish driving maul, England chose not to compete in the air with the Ireland jumpers. Meanwhile, the likes of Peter O’Mahony and Iain Henderson had a field day in disrupting the English throw.
The buck appears to fall with the lineout leader, Maro Itoje. The 22-year-old will need to take this experience as a learning curve and ensure the set-piece doesn’t falter so badly again.
It looked like resolving itself in the second half as England got their driving maul going. But a bizarre decision, in the 78th minute, not to compete for an Irish lineout when trailing 13-9 and needing the ball to win, leaves a lot of questions about what was going on with the English decision-making.
Sexton shows he’s hard as nails
The fly-half was hit hard by James Haskell, then borderline late by Itoje, and then again by the Saracens forward in a bone-shuddering tackle that left the fly-half needing treatment. And yet he continued to give it his all.
Sexton’s moment to shine came with the boot, his beautifully struck 45m penalty on the angle a crushing blow to the England fightback that lifted the stadium and the men in green. But it was his desire to continue, despite having a more than able replacement lying in wait in Paddy Jackson, to see the game out.
Any questions over his inclusion in the British and Irish Lions XV this summer have been answered, such has been his decisive influence in every game he’s played in.
Heaslip injury a stroke of luck
The loss of such an important figure in Jamie Heaslip would normally destroy a sides spirit before kick-off, but it meant that Joe Schmidt had to re-jig his back-row to accommodate the returning Peter O’Mahony, with David Leavy named on the replacements.
It proved to be a match-winning change, as man-of-the-match O’Mahony sigle-handedly picked apart the English lineout and had a destructive impact on the oppositions defence. Schmidt flatly rejected any accusation of an underhand tactical switch, and you believed him, but it proved to be a very important one nonetheless.
Decision to bring Henderson in a tactical win for Schmidt
Another big contribution from the Ireland head coach was the decision to drop Devin Toner, all 6ft 10in of him, to bring in Iain Henderson. The more combative Ulster forward was able to perform in the lineout and get himself about the park, and what shone through most was his ability to break the gainline every time he carried.
That was none so prominent as when he carried the ball to within inches of the try line, before stretching out his arm to dot the ball down for the only try of the match. It proved to be a decisive carry given the four-point margin.
England deserve praise despite grand Slam choke
Yes, it was another missed Grand Slam, and yes, it was another case of England choking when the pressure was on. But, this also was the end of the best run of form in English rugby history, and for that Eddie Jones and his side have to be commended, not slated.
This is a remarkable side that can snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, which made it all the more surprising that they weren’t able to get over the line when Jones sent on his “finishers”. England can’t be written off as the potential New Zealand-challengers that they were before this match after just one defeat, but it’s now a question of seeing if they learn from this experience.
Their next trip to Dublin comes in two years’ time, just a few months before Jones takes his side to Japan for the World Cup. Only then will we know the answer.