It is said that Ireland are notoriously slow starters. In their opening match of this year’s Six Nations in Dublin on Saturday, England began like a rocket and Ireland really did not know quite what had hit them. England unleashed an avalanche of fire, power and pace on their shell-shocked opponents which was unrelenting throughout the match. Allied to some big hitting from their returning big hitters, England ultimately had far too much for a disappointing Ireland and ran out comfortable winners, 32-20.
In this World Cup year, Ireland have been widely tipped as having the best chance of success of any of the Northern Hemisphere teams. After 80 minutes of rugby, those predictions are now hastily being rewritten. Maybe it was the pressure or the weight of expectation that proved too much for the Irish as they were overwhelming favourites to demolish Eddie’s men. Rugby does have a habit of confounding expectations and the Six Nations, now sponsored by Guinness, rarely disappoints.
Whilst Ireland did sneak in front mid way through the first half after the initial English onslaught, with a burrowing try from close range from Cian Healy, they were largely outfought, outthought and outmuscled by a resurgent England, who produced their best performance on foreign soil for many a year.
For once Eddie almost had a full complement of fit men at his disposal, especially the returning Vunipola brothers and Manu Tuilagi, and it was clear how pleased he was. Indeed pre match he said that England supporters could expect a performance that is “very brutal, very committed and something to be proud of”. He was not wrong. His players showed aggressive line speed in defence – the influence of new defensive coach John Mitchell perhaps- and were indeed brutal in the tackle, constantly knocking the Irish players off their feet. The physicality of every single player was evident to see, as if to prove to everyone that they were not going to be pushovers. Sam Curry, still only 20, certainly made his mark amongst his older and more experienced colleagues.
Furthermore, England showed some bold intent going forward which was typified in the opening moments when at the first line out, Jamie George threw over the top to an onrushing Tuilagi, catching the Irish off guard. England continued to play with the shackles off, seeking quick ball and offloading from the tackle as well as moving the ball wide at any opportunity. This was fast paced front foot rugby and really not what anyone had expected.
Jonny May, who was quite exceptional all afternoon and was very unlucky not to receive the Man of the Match award, which went to Mako Vunipola, dived over in the corner for the opening try after only 5 minutes following some quick passing and interplay. Elliot Daly gave May the scoring pass and then scored the second try himself after his delicate probing grubber kick caused Jacob Stockdale to stumble and fumble, Daly pouncing for the score. Indeed the Wasps man looked a complete revelation after his stuttering performances for his club in recent weeks.
All over the pitch England looked like a team on a mission and with a sense of collective purpose. Anyone thinking that the improvements made back in the autumn with a few wins back in the comfort of HQ were a false dawn were well and truly quashed. Indeed, it can be rightly said that his performance in the cauldron of the emerald clad Aviva in Dublin meant more than all that had gone before in the autumn. Make no mistake, this was proper championship Test rugby where only the strongest and fittest survive. There is no hiding place.
It had been widely predicted in advance that the Irish kicking game would unsettle the English rear guard and that their overall je ne sais quoi, experience and knowledge of how to win big matches would see them over the line. Yet England were so forceful and dominant that the Irish were rarely able to gain any form of control or foothold on the match to exert their own game plan. Johnny Sexton looked short of game practice which is exactly what he was, having not played for weeks. Even the best players in the world need some game time to ensure that they are in the groove before big games. He was thoroughly eclipsed by his opposite number Owen Farrell here.
The Englishmen grew and grew in confidence as the scoreboard moved further in their favour. It could be argued that the ball bounced kindly for them on occasions yet it is often said that fortune favours the brave.
Henry Slade, who has rarely been able to produce his Exeter club form on the international stage, rose to the occasion here with a fully committed performance and showed his pace and dexterity to score two tries to seal the victory. His first was the result of a lighting short side move from deep when he eluded the Irish cover to dive on Jonny May’s kick through and for the second he was the beneficiary of a wild Irish pass deep in their own half, which he intercepted, cleverly holding on to the ball as he fell and had the composure to return to his feet to dive over for the bonus point score. Unheard of in Dublin.
Eddie must also be credited for largely sticking to his starting XV throughout the match. There is often a tendency in the modern game for coaches to seemingly make changes for changes sake, maybe influenced by modern technology at their fingertips. However, sometimes a coach just has to observe what is happening in front of his own eyes, ignoring computer stats and data. If it isn’t broken, what is there to fix? Alas for England, the injury to their second row colossus Maro Itoje, which did require a substitution, does look serious and this will be a blow to them if he is ruled out for the rest of the tournament.
For Ireland, they will not be pressing the panic button yet but they will be concerned as to how easily they were dismantled in their own back yard. The Aviva has become something of a fortress for them in recent years where they have beaten every single international team, including the mighty All Blacks in the Autumn, and maybe this is just the kick they need to refocus. International rugby can be brutal and intense, where reputations can count for little. Ireland will be hurting but do not write them off just yet.
Big hitting England will be standing proud and tall and will reflect on a good afternoon’s work, arguably beyond their wildest expectations. However, Eddie will ensure that his players do not get ahead of themselves, yet his mischievous wry smile has returned. Maybe this will be England’s year after all ?