Why Jamie Heaslip's injury played into Irish hands
There had been a lot of talk in the build-up about Jamie Heaslip potentially being dropped to the bench in order to accommodate Peter O’Mahony – whose lineout skills were felt to be much in need after the defeat by Wales. Joe Schmidt had resisted those calls, retaining faith in his vice-captain. The decision was taken out of his hands, though, when Heaslip rolled his ankle in the warm-up.
The enforced change appeared to go down well with the crowd, who roared their approval, and also with the Irish back row. Ireland were noticeably more aggressive in a first half they dominated, winning 76/77 rucks and 74 per cent possession.
In fact, the absence of much of Ireland’s core leadership team – Conor Murray (injured) and Devin Toner (dropped) were also missing, while even captain Rory Best had to leave the field for a bit – did not appear to affect Ireland at all. Even the call-up of Iain Henderson in place of Toner proved inspired, the 6ft5in lock’s extra mobility in the loose seeing him muscle his way over for that first-half try.
How Irealnd's rush defence paid dividends
Andy Farrell’s impact on this Ireland team was hailed in the autumn when they produced high-intensity wins over New Zealand and Australia featuring a noticeable increase in line speed. But there had been murmurings in recent weeks that, while Ireland might be flying into their opponents’ faces, they were not actually conceding fewer tries. On the contrary, they were conceding more.
Flying up is a high-risk, high-reward game, though, and Ireland’s line speed in the opening exchanges here was so quick it threw England completely off their stride. The partnership of George Ford and Owen Farrell, afforded the freedom Twickenham against the Scots last weekend, could not settle into any sort of rhythm as Ireland tore into them, giving the hosts 74 per cent possession in the first half.
It also had the effect of energising the crowd which rapidly began to make its presence felt, booing anything that went against their team - Maro Itoje’s tackles on Jonathan Sexton for instance – while almost willing their team over the line. The stadium was positively crackling.
How England’s ‘finishers’ were powerless this time
England’s much talked about ‘finishers’ did the job against France. And again against Wales. Here, though, they ran out of road and up against a wall of green. Eddie Jones brought Mako Vunipola on for Joe Marler at half time, replaced Billy Vunipola with Nathan Hughes not long after, and switched Ben Youngs with Danny Care. But nothing he did could turn the tide.
Schmidt had the weaker match-day 23 but the Kiwi managed his bench brilliantly, bringing on the likes of Cian Healy, Devin Toner and Paddy Jackson and keeping the momentum going. England managed to secure marginally more of the ball in the second half (55 per cent) but their mistakes – the careless knock ons, kicks out on the full, overthrown lineouts – combined with their much higher tackle count eventually told. Although it was only a one score game by the end, England never managed to put sustained pressure on the Ireland try line, finishing without a try for the first time in this tournament.
Man of the match
Peter O’Mahony Absolutely immense performance from the Munster back rower. O’Mahony looked as if he would be an ever present in Ireland’s team when he emerged a few years back. A future Ireland captain, which he surely still is. Injuries combined with the emergence of CJ Stander have limited his starting opportunities in the last season or two. The 27 year-old remains so important to this Ireland team though. His passion, his mastery of the dark arts at the breakdown, his leadership, his lineout ability. His steal when he took the ball out of the hands of Maro Itoje in the last 10 minutes was a potentially match-winning moment. Did his Lions chances no harm at all.
What do Ireland need to do next?
On their day Ireland can beat any team in the world. They proved that at Soldier Field and again yesterday. But it feels sometimes as if they need the high-intensity occasion to really get up for it. Their win percentage since the World Cup hovers around the 50 per cent mark. Joe Schmidt’s team need to become a more consistent force, and perhaps find more ways to win, if they are going to become a consistent force at the top of world rugby and challenge for the 2019 World Cup.
What do England need to do next?
There is no need for Eddie Jones’ team to panic. Pouring rain, a hostile Dublin crowd and an Ireland team who have not lost at home in three years…this was never going to be an easy game. A world record-equalling 18 games in a row is still an incredible achievement and England can now build again without the pressure of the unbeaten run hanging over them. They will learn from this.