England pack proves potent force
IT’S LONG been widely suspected that Mike Ross was arguably Ireland’s most valuable player, largely on the theory that “heaven help us” if he was ever injured. Such an appalling vista had been avoided until Saturday. Well, now we know.
In the corresponding game at the Aviva Stadium a year ago, the same Irish frontrow over-powered the same English frontrow at the first scrum to draw the lines in the sand. Cue the game’s first minute and the first scrum here, and with Cian Healy buckling under pressure from Dan Cole, Ross suffered a cricked neck. We weren’t to know it at the time, although we would soon find out, but the game was effectively up there and then.
There was the rare sight of the Irish scrum in severe difficulty at virtually every put in, with all the pressure coming from Alex Corbisiero through Ross. Apart from one or two exceptions, Ross and the Irish frontrow couldn’t even seem to take the hit, whereas the English frontrow were always on the front foot.
Ross battled on through pain until the 37th minute at which point all became a little clearer, if even more ominous, when he departed to be replaced by Tom Court.
England had picked off their first three points from the penalty which referee Nigel Owens awarded when that first scrum went down and led 9-3 when Ross departed, having added another three off their scrum when Eoin Reddan kicked the ball from their backrow upfield. On an unhappy afternoon, not the wisest choice of Reddan’s career. Even their third penalty, for offside against Gordon D’arcy, followed one of two shoves against the head.
With their lineout, defence and breakdown efforts in good working order, Ireland would stay in the match until an inevitable and debilitating penalty try nearing the hour mark, after which the carnage spread like a malaise. Little dinks or up-andunders were far more productive strategies than trying to keep the ball in hand, but even Ireland’s kicking game went to pot, especially at scrumhalf.
This was more a day for the injured Conor Murray or Isaac Boss (back in New Zealand for family reasons) than Reddan, or for that matter, the out-of-form O’leary. He had never been a form pick ahead of Paul Marshall, while confidence drained from virtually all of them, an example being D’arcy, whose game in this championship has became overanxious.
In mitigation of Court, he came to Ireland from Australia essentially as a developing tighthead, but has largely played loosehead for Ulster and Ireland in latter years. Exposed to a potent and vengeful young English frontrow, three of the five players retained from England’s hiding a year ago, Court was hopelessly out of his depth.
The aerial shots of a disintegrating Irish scrum showed Court driven sidewards almost immediately on impact before crumbling. Such is modern scrummaging, t here was no recourse to channel-one ball. Even scrum coach Greg Feek and the rest of the pack couldn’t rectify matters during the interval, as the scrum doctor had done for Leinster in the Heineken Cup final; the difference then being, of course, that Ross was still on the pitch.
It didn’t help that the ball had been like a bar of soap, with England making 13 errors to Ireland’s 17, and this in turn meant 18 completed scrums. In addition to losing three against the head, of these Ireland were penalised nine times (in a penalty count of 12-6), and all but three of England’s 30 points emanated from their scrum. With the crowd baying for another scrum inside the Irish 22, Chris Robshaw mercifully asked the ultra-composed Owen Farrell to knock over his sixth threepointer. Maybe Robshaw was conscious of the day that was in it.
The fatigue factor from a fourth game in four weeks was always more liable to take a heavier toll if Ireland were behind entering the last quarter. In the event, they were already beaten by the hour mark after England’s penalty try three minutes earlier.
You knew they were a little bunched when you saw Corbisiero bounce, of all people, Stephen Ferris. His pre-match comments regarding “arrogant’ England, even if taken out of context, may not have been helpful, and are rather untypical of a remark emanating from a Declan Kidney camp. For example, one can’t imagine Anthony Foley would have approved of such a remark. But cometh the kick-off there was no doubting the man’s desire, concentration and application in the contact zone as, yet again, no one did more to apply the rush defence and knock England back behind the gain line.
The pluses were minimal in the circumstances, although there actually were a few, and uppermost amongst those was the outside-in defence. It really would have been interesting to see where England’s points might have come from without recourse to their scrum. The lineout yielded a 12 from 12 return, with the Rory Best throw avoiding Tom Croft in large part by finding Jamie Heaslip, who, along with Seán O’brien, worked tirelessly.
The breakdown work was also good, and this was where Ireland’s counter-rucking yielded a few turnovers and two of Jonathan Sexton’s three penalties, with his aerial assault and the Tommy Bowe/rob Kearney led chase yielding the first of them.
Individually, it was almost impossible to shine, although Keith Earls once again managed to do so, not only shutting down the threat of Manu Tuilagi, but, after a pacey first-half burst down the wing, taking the English centre on his inside shoulder with one searing carry of 50 metres.
Alas, amid the darkening gloom of the second half, that was a fairly isolated ray of light. Scoring sequence: 3 mins: Farrell pen 3-0; 16: sexton pen 3-3; 24: Farrell pen 6-3; 36: Farrell pen 9-3; 40+2: Sexton pen 9-6; ( half-time: 9-6); 49: Farrell pen 12-6; 52: Sexton pen 12-9; 57: penalty try, Farrell con 19-9; 65: Farrell pen 22-9; 74: Youngs try 27-9; 78: Farrell pen 30-9. ENGLAND: B Foden; C Ashton, M Tuilagi, B Barritt, D Strettle; O Farrell, L Dickson ; A Corbisiero, D Hartley, D Cole, M Botha , G Parling, T Croft, C Robshaw (capt), B Morgan. Replacements: B Youngs for Dickson (49 mins), T Palmer for Botha (54 mins) , M Brown for Foden (71 mins), L Mears for Hartley, M Stevens for Cole, P Dowson for Morgan (75 mins). IRELAND: R Kearney (Leinster); T Bowe (Ospreys), K Earls (Munster), G D'arcy Leinster), A Trimble (Ulster); J Sexton (Leinster), E Reddan (Leinster); C Healy (Leinster), R Best (Ulster, capt), M Ross (Leinster), D O'callaghan (Munster), D Ryan (Munster), S Ferris (Ulster), S O’brien (Leinster), J Heaslip (Leinster). Replacements: T Court (Ulster) for Ross (37 mins), R O’gara (Munster) for D’arcy (47 mins), T O’leary (Munster) for Reddan (49 mins), M Mccarthy (Connacht) for O’callaghan (67 mins), P O’mahony (Munster) for O’brien (70 mins), F Mcfadden (Leinster) for Trimble (74 mins), S Cronin (Leinster) for Best (78 mins). Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales).
England’s Owen Farrell (right) celebrates with Tom Palmer after referee Nigel Owens awarded a penalty try during their Six Nations match against Ireland at Twickenham on Saturday.