Eng­land pack proves po­tent force

The Irish Times - Monday - Sport - - Rugby Six Nations - GERRY THORN­LEY at Twick­en­ham

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).

Pho­to­graph: Reuters

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.

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