Updated: Nov 25, 2020
We spent all week speculating, analysing and scrutinising over every little detail going into this clash, obsessing over the breakdown, pointing out positional perils and trying not to bite on Eddie Jones' mind games. However, the game boiled down to one key area, DEFENCE.
England were ruthless in the contact, dominating every other collision and throwing the typically powerful Irish ball carriers all over the place. Launchbury, Itoje, Curry, Sinckler, Underhill and George all made bone crunching tackles by the time the first quarter had come to an end. Itoje in particular, put some huge hits in against his opposite number, overwhelming his competition in James Ryan.
However, the teams were only really separated by some individual brilliance by Jonny May. We said in our podcast that we need to start respecting May as one of the best wingers in English Rugby history; the stats simply don't lie. One cross field kick and one lapse in concentration had him score in the corner, beating Keenan to the punch... But it was his second try that was truly outstanding... He is lethal if you give him space and Ireland gave it to him in bucketfuls.
Before we get carried away, it's important to remember that Ireland never left the contest. Whether that was from sheer determination, bounce back and/or grit, or whether it was from a lack of English ingenuity, Ireland had more than enough chances to break this team down. Let's get to the analysis...
Let's Talk Collisions
Much of the media surrounding this match up reflected on previous meetings between the two nations. Last time England lost to the Irish, the stats showed a close match up in which England edged the men in green in dominant collisions, but flunked out in other key stats. However, over the last three years, there is only one stat that separated the new squads, that being England's previous edge, dominant collisions.
England's forwards ragdolled a huge Irish pack as if it were men vs boys. It's often been debated who would replace Courtney Lawes' physical prowess in that second row, Launchbury had been there all along, it's just injuries kept him out of sight, but my God did he put in a shift! Him and Itoje should be the starting second rows for the Lions tour, no doubt about it.
Ireland did begin to win some front foot ball towards the end of the game, with Chris Farrell in particular looking dangerous as he barrelled into the midfield, but they just couldn't keep consistently moving forward. Ollie Lawrence shut down any options around the outside too with aggressive tackling and intelligent positional play; again it was dominant hit after dominant hit.
Kicking Them to Death
Much has been levied at the English about a boring brand of Rugby, highlighting their kick-heavy game style as unimaginative and dull, but it's so well executed and nearly impossible to defend. England choose to play in the right areas of the pitch and like the All Black's before them, choose route one to prevent silly errors in their own half.
We've bagged on Youngs for his ineffective box kicking, but he did his job masterfully yesterday. The stats prove that the teams who kick more, win more and you'd struggle to find a team that kicks as much as England.
However, there are downsides that will arise from this strategically thin tactic, downsides which have hurt them before. You CANNOT do it against sides with a better back three. It's worked against Ireland, Georgia, Italy but it was their downfall against France and South Africa. If you kick into Anthony Bouthiers, Ntamacks, Vakatawas or Duponts hands, they will tear you to shreds. Ireland really missed a Sexton, really missed a Kearney and really missed a Zebo. England have been given too much respect up to this point allowing them to execute this game plan. Force them to change to a free flowing brand of Rugby, and England showed that they have little to no flair. Its boring punditry to beg a team not to kick, but when it's working this well and its covering over cracks so efficiently, then of course they will keep doing it. Sort it out home nations, adapt and react.
Possession; The Forgotten Stat
When growing up, possession was everything anyone ever talked about in analysis. The team with the most ball will eventually win. However, this has finally evolved into better tactical analysis. Collisions, territory, metres gained and penalty counts have now all overtaken the possession stat in importance. I think we are about due a change...
England dominated the first half despite only having 45% possession. They were clinical with the ball in hand, made very little errors and played in the right areas. They managed the first half as perfectly as any fan would want them to. The second half proved that this can't continue to be sustainable.
39% possession and 6 points scored to Ireland's 7 proved that England must maintain focus on achieving ball throughout the full 80 minutes. If they try to defend as they did in this match against a huge South African outfit or a New Zealand side that score from every opportunity, they simply won't win. At the moment, it feels as if England are being flattered by a lack of cohesiveness by other northern hemisphere nations, but you have to keep looking ahead.
I hate to be that guy, but England did need Jack Willis in the second half. Much has been made of him being a one trick pony, but he's scored more tries for England than Underhill, he's only second to Earl in back row tries last season and he's far more snub nosed around the park. We desperately needed a proper jackal, not just a pack of players disrupting in the rucks. Itoje and Curry tried their best to rescue some ball, but they aren't nearly as nimble or opportunistic as the young 7.
In summary, fantastic result beating Ireland with so little ball, but don't wear it as a badge of honour.
So Much Depth
The scary thing about this England squad is that they could have played their bench and fringe players and still come up with a result so similar. The whole 'finisher' mentality really has revolutionised England's additional options off the field. When Earl came on, he looked tenacious and frenzied, when Dunn came on, it looked like he was about to knock someone into last century, when Jonny Hill came on, suddenly there was a behemoth lumbering around the breakdown, England have scary options to pick from.
As much as I moan and nitpick that Willis would have improved England's lacklustre second half performance, Underhill and Curry still proved why they are potential Lions-quality first team options. Whilst I lambast Jones for not affording Simmonds a chance at 8, Vunipola continues to be a stalwart in that back row. Whilst I am annoyed at the lack of rotation at Fly Half and lack of flair and creativity in the half backs, Farrell and Youngs continue to surpress any competition by putting in mechanically efficient performances. It's the weirdest time to be an England fan, your national team is so dominant but you're currently, constantly obsessed by what they can do better. So... Much... Depth...
Can We Sort Out The Lineout?
We saw it last week when Ireland bossed the lineout against a disfunctional Welsh side, we saw Georgia lose just about every throw in to England and we've seen Argentina target New Zealand's flimsy aerial ability. When was the last time that we saw BOTH teams do okay at the lineout?
Ireland shot themselves in the foot over and over again, over throwing, under throwing, throwing it in squiffy, throwing it in wildly and it was a mess. It meant they couldn't get their driving maul going, it meant they couldn't secure ball after winning territory and it meant that their set piece options were bogged down to diving on the deck in the midfield. Itoje snuffed out any ball Ryan could get his fingertips to in the air, showing his experience as he got under the skin of the Irish captain. Teams are actively LOSING games because of how rubbish their line out drills are and that's a shocker considering how much international Rugby we've had recently; it's not like they need time to gel...