England’s Grand Slam and world record hopes unravelled in the face of a ferocious Ireland performance at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday night. Rugby News Correspondent Gavin Mairs looks at the reasons why Eddie Jones’s side were finally derailed...
The return of the choke tackle
This tactic of forcing a turn-over by holding up the ball carrier and preventing him from releasing looked to have gone out of vogue in recent seasons since it was first championed by Ireland in 2011, but it returned with a vengeance on Saturday.
On several occasions Ireland were not only able to stop England’s ball carrier on the gain line but also land the huge psychological blow of rapping him up and winning a scrum put-in for Joe Schmidt’s side. A tag-team tackle by Robbie Henshaw and Jonathan Sexton on James Haskell in the 54th minute, just moments after England had won a penalty to set up an attacking line-out, was a highlight.
“It is ok to deal with the choke tackle when you are on the front foot and you have got a bit of momentum and you are carrying the ball after a dominant carry,” admitted Joe Launchbury, the England lock.
“But we probably found ourselves in the middle of the pitch trying to gain momentum. To get momentum from a standing still (position) when they are trying to choke is obviously a pretty hard tactic and it's one that they did well.”
Billy Vunipola added: “They’ve got a massive choke-tackle threat and it gave them an opportunity to slow the ball down and stop us getting the momentum we’re used to. We could have adapted better but a few times we let them back in the game by being a bit too high in the tackle.”
Ireland’s line-out had creaked against Wales yet it was transformed into a key attacking weapon against an area of the England game that had been imperious going into their Grand Slam mission.
The decision to drop key line-out operator Devin Toner for Iain Henderson had raised questions about their ability to cope with England’s three jumpers in Courtney Lawes, Maro Itoje and Launchbury, but instead it was Ireland who were able to pressurise the England throw.
Ireland brought variety to their throws, using Donnacha Ryan and the outstanding Peter O’Mahony to great effect, one leading to the try by Henderson.
It proved a tough learning experience for Itoje, who was calling England’s line-outs for the first time this Championship in the absence of George Kruis, with the game-defining moment coming when O’Mahony stole England’s ball from Itoje, after Farrell had kicked to the Irish 22-metre line in the 73rd minute. There would be no way back.
“It's been a great learning experience for him (Itoje),” said Eddie Jones. “To have him (George Kruis) not in the side is difficult for us. So Maro's now come through and he's the guy that we can call on to call the line-outs.”
The loss of Conor Murray with a shoulder injury was a massive blow to Ireland’s hopes, but they managed superbly even without his world-class kicking game, devising a strategy to ensure that England were denied a line-out platform to attack from, particularly in the first-half.
Ireland’s analysis of England’s attacking game had identified their potency from first-phase ball, which they had used to inflict fatal damage against Scotland.
Ireland’s strategy was two-fold. First, they simply refused to kick the ball to touch, giving England only two line-outs in the first half, and then ensured their discipline at the breakdown was impeccable to deny their opponents the opportunity to kick to the corners and launch attacking line-outs.
In contrast, England’s kicking game failed to match the accuracy of their previous four victories, with George Ford kicking out on the full, some of the box-kicks too short and the cross-kicks ineffective.
Andy Farrell’s influence was critical to Ireland’s victory as England were prevented from scoring a try for the first time in two years in the Six Nations.
Ireland’s line-speed and aggression set the tone for the entire contest and it was this ability to build pressure on England that forced them into making a series of uncharacteristic handling and kicking errors.
England’s ability to compete for the ball at the breakdown was also negated by fierce counter-rucking, spearheaded by Iain Henderson and Sean O’Brien.
Ireland’s decision to carry more ball by limiting their kicking game also forced England to make around 50 per cent more tackles than their opponents (153 to 108) and consequently England missed 15 to Ireland’s nine.
“Every time we got near their half we would cause a mistake, a turnover or something and we would just be back in our half,” admitted James Haskell. “You’ve got to build pressure against a side like Ireland - and the pressure was all on us.
“That’s nothing to do with tactics. That’s down to individual errors. Credit to Ireland for the way they played. It’s a difficult one for us.”
The pressure generated by Ireland’s ferocity in the forward collisions enabled Schmidt’s side to dominate possession as well as territory.
England’s magnificent attacking machine was therefore forced to live off scraps and faced with the unusual position of being denied front-foot ball to exploit.
England had been prepared for a power play start but after half an hour had conceded 75 per cent of possession and territory to Ireland to leave Jones’s side on the back foot and chasing the game.
Consequently, Ireland’s top-three ball carriers – Jared Payne, Keith Earls and Simon Zebo - made almost double the amount of metres of England’s top three – Mike Brown, Ben Youngs and Elliot Daly.
“In the first half we couldn’t get our hands on the ball and when we did we gave it back to them,” admitted Jones. “The players handled it really well – they were just too good for us, it happens sometimes."