Six Nations: Ireland left to rue bringing the best out of England

Ireland’s attack failed to flow but they still got themselves into a winning position before letting it slip

England 23 Ireland 22

Ever since that opening night in the Stade Vélodrome – which now seems an awfully lot longer than five weeks ago – it had seemed as if destiny had called this Irish team. Even though this performance didn’t scale those heights of Marseilles, Ireland had seemingly, like all great sides, found a way to win, only for them to let it slip from their grasp. And not just once, but twice.

In many ways this Irish team should take it as a compliment that, much like the All Blacks producing their best performance in four years in that World Cup quarter-final, so it was that out of respect and fear that England found a level of attacking fervour, ambition and accuracy against Ireland not seen since their 2019 semi-final win over the All Blacks.

As with the tens of thousands in the Green Army, the home crowd also found their voice in a way not heard in many a year, and all of this was provoked by Ireland becoming akin to the All Blacks in their Tri-Nations pomp. In European rugby, this is the esteem and even awe in which this Irish team is held. Ireland are the hunted ones.

A rejuvenated England conjured a superbly worked try sparked by the counter-attacking of George Furbank and the slick reloading and passing of George Ford, Furbank and Henry Slade for Ollie Lawrence to finish. They mounted sieges inside the Irish 22, yet with the outstanding Josh van der Flier, Bundee Aki, Tadhg Beirne and Dan Sheehan producing huge defensive moments, somehow Ireland led 12-8 at the end of the first period.


Ireland’s launch plays were usually effective and as England rolled the dice with their defensive line speed, they still led to three Jack Crowley penalties and a fourth from 46 metres to reward Aki’s strength over the ball.

“The message at half time was how to improve our territory and possession battle, to be aware of our surroundings a little bit more,” said Andy Farrell afterwards.

“I thought we became a little bit too desperate to try and solve things on our own, whether it be decision-making at the breakdown or look at your surroundings at the breakdown. ‘Are you offside or not?’ ‘What have you got on the outside of you defensively?’ ‘What’s the system we need to communicate to each other?’

“It’s a little bit disjointed as far as that’s concerned and that’s what gave them the access.”

And when Ireland struck for the first of James Lowe’s tries, they looked set fair at 17-8 ahead. The excellent Hugo Keenan had reclaimed Jamison Gibson-Park’s box kick, and Tadhg Furlong pulled the ball back for Crowley to deftly delay his pass, so releasing Caelan Doris. The passing of Aki, Robbie Henshaw and Ciarán Frawley, and Lowe’s finish, were all high quality.

But then Ireland’s apparent grip on the game loosened. And again there was a curious reprise of the mistakes Farrell had highlighted at half-time. Ireland were again outflanked on the edges and then Gibson-Park cleared to halfway as Lowe had done in the build-up to the first try.

When Ford passed infield to Slade and Lawrence was tackled by Keenan, Immanuel Feyi-Waboso countered diagonally and, losing awareness of team-mates around them and numbers outside defensively, 11 Irish players were drawn towards the ball, all within 10 metres of each other.

As a result, passes by Jamie George and Ford took out all of them, and with Joe McCarthy coming off his line, there was only Furlong and Gibson-Park defending a wave of England attackers. Sure enough, accurate passes by Sam Undwerhill and Maro Itoje beat the covering Lowe and gave Furbank a clear run to the line.

From that moment on, whatever little control Ireland had more or less evaporated. This was all the more so after lineout misfires, another break by the brilliant Ben Earl, and Peter O’Mahony undoing his fine recovering tackle by going off his feet to incur a yellow card.

Ireland’s attack didn’t flow like it normally does. Yet they responded to England’s ensuing power play and an Earl try by conjuring another superb finish by Lowe in the left corner.

One of the consequences of O’Mahony’s yellow card was that Ryan Baird (for whom, like Crowley, this was a first taste of a Test defeat) was restricted to a dozen minutes. But his tackle on Furbank enabled Rónan Kelleher to win another jackal penalty and doff an attacking lineout, then there was another effective launch play when Aki topped the ball on to Henshaw. Two phases later, Iain Henderson pivoted and Crowley linked with Gibson-Park’s super quick hands to give Lowe his second run to the corner.

Crowley’s second missed conversion from the touchline has to be viewed in the context of a tricky breeze, witness Ford leaving seven points behind off the tee. Besides, such were Ireland’s defensive vulnerabilities and so fired up were the home crowd and team alike that once Murray’s kick found touch there was a foreboding inevitability about the outcome. And had they needed a try in the endgame, even reduced to 14 men by the loss of Chandler Cunningham-South, England might well have found one.

Ireland had long looked a little rattled, whether by England’s fervour or the prize at stake, or a combination of the two. At least the title can still be retained, and on home soil, which offered some respite for Van der Flier.

“I think it’s hard to put into words how grateful we feel as players to Irish people in general for the amount of support we always get at every tournament, football, rugby, or whatever sport it is – the Irish always have incredible support,” he said.

“It was real special last year to win it in Ireland, to give them the big parties and all that goes on. Thinking back to last year it was really special, so we won’t get ahead of ourselves but it is an added incentive to put in a really big performance.”

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times