Cian Tracey endured yesterday's monsoon at the Aviva to file this report on Ireland's depressing defeat at the hands of England.
1. Scrum Holds Up, While Everything Else Collapses
Plenty was made of how Ireland would cope in the scrum against an English side that completely demolished them in Twickenham last year. In the end, the Irish scrum held their own. It was testament to how well they performed with England introducing Mako Vunipola early in the second half. However, it was the basic errors that ultimately cost Ireland victory yesterday.
Ireland seemed to have the upper hand at the breakdown in the first half, providing a solid platform but nine unforced errors halted any momentum that was building. The atmosphere amongst the home supporters in the Aviva Stadium mirrored that of the nervy display on the pitch. Ireland's kicking game was as bad as it has been for quite some time. Time after time, the ball was kicked aimlessly back into English territory without any end-product.
Ireland won each one of their four scrums whilst England lost three of their ten. A statistic that tells its own story. Afterwards Mike Ross spoke about how pleased Ireland were with the improvement in the scrum: "We were certainly happy with how that went, especially after last year, it was a bit of a nightmare. It was a good improvement. It's something we've all worked on hard during the week. We knew if we had a bad day at the office today, especially in conditions like these, it becomes a source of penalties, go forward and points accumulation for the opposition team. We couldn't afford that."
England simply outsmarted Ireland in a game which demanded cool heads under pressure. Ireland's unforced errors and aimless kicking were the major downfall in an error-strung performance. In the end, it was the cool head of Owen Farrell that saw his side emerge as winners.
2. Ireland Were the Creators of Their Own Downfall
The amount of Irish unforced errors have already been mentioned. But there were far more issues than just the handling errors. Cian Healy's reckless use of the boot at a ruck epitomised Ireland's fractious performance. Ireland's indiscipline was poor and they gave away eleven penalties in total. Crucially two of these came while Ireland had a man advantage, which turned out to be the turning point of the game. In the press conference after the game, Jamie Heaslip was questioned about about why he felt his side couldn't capitalise on their man advantage. He said: "I'll have to look at the video. But the sense I got from it was that we had a lot of pressure. They probably played a lot of the rugby in our half when they had that man off and it's very hard to score from your own half."
Ireland had no Plan B throughout this game and this was alarmingly evident during Haskell's ten minute spell in the sin bin. As Heaslip said, Ireland were pinned back in their own half for almost the entire ten minute period when they had a numerical advantage. Declan Kidney refused to accept that his side lacked an alternative plan and argued that Ireland played the way they had set out to: "I absolutely wouldn't agree with that at all. I think you'll find we did get field position. Then it's a case of attacking and not turning over the ball as quickly as we did. Okay, Plan B would be if you weren't able to get into the opposition half." The problem was, when Ireland did manage to get the ball into the English half, it was on the back of poor, aimless kicks that failed to provide any real momentum.
Ireland's decision making was also generally poor on an afternoon that required someone to step up and lead the way. Heaslip had one of his poorer games in an Irish shirt, and this was compounded by two soft knock-ons in the first half. The usually reliable Rob Kearney was also surprisingly hesitant throughout. Midway through the second half, Kearney opted to run with the ball inside his own 22 was quickly bundled into touch. A penalty soon followed from the line out. As Kearney himself said afterwards, it was a game when it was better not to have the ball. His decision to keep the ball in hand on a couple of occasions proved costly.
3. Farrell Trumps The Battle of the Out-Halves
An interesting sub plot to the game was always going to be the battle between Jonathan Sexton and Owen Farrell. It was first blood to the Saracens man when he was gifted an early chance to slot the ball between the posts after just two minutes on the clock. Farrell was confident throughout and looked every bit the world class player he promises to be.
Sexton's afternoon was cut short before the break after he pulled up with a hamstring injury. Kidney confirmed that Sexton had in fact torn his hamstring but refused to speculate on how long it might keep the French bound fly-half would be out for. "He's ready to get a scan either later tonight or early tomorrow. But he looks to have given his hamstring a good tear."
Enter Ronan O'Gara. The Munster player had already come up against Farrell twice in the pool stages of the Heineken Cup and you felt - or rather hoped - that the conditions would have been made for O'Gara. His two penalties briefly drew the sides level but O'Gara was guilty on more than one occasion of throwing loose balls in the back line. He pushed a crucial kick wide, that would have put just three points between the sides. He followed this up by giving away a penalty of his own when he was penalised for holding onto the ball after collecting a high ball. Unfortunately for O'Gara, yesterday's game just confirmed that now, more than ever, a younger out half must be fast tracked as a back-up to Sexton.
It was by no means a vintage display by any of the three out-halves on show yesterday. But you just got the feeling that this was another huge step in the development of England's Owen Farrell.
4. Ireland's Injury List Mounts
In what has been a hugely physical couple of weeks for Ireland, the intensity of both games looks to have taken its toll on a battered and bruised side. The in-form Simon Zebo hobbled off the pitch after just ten minutes. The prognosis from Declan Kidney was not good. "Simon has a broken bone on the outside of his foot so he'll go for surgery tomorrow. He'll be out for maybe up to ten weeks." This rules Zebo out of the remainder of the tournament, while also casting doubt over his chances of playing in the Heineken Cup quarter final against Harlequins.
As already mentioned, Jonathan Sexton looks to have tore his hamstring. Kidney said he'll know today how serious it is. He went on to run through what is a lengthy injury list: "Sean O'Brien has a bit of a tight hamstring and also needs an insurance x-ray on his thumb, along with a stinger. But the stinger will be alright. Mike McCarthy I think has a bit of a medial strain in one of his knees and Donnnacha Ryan has gone for an x-ray too. Brian O'Driscoll twisted his ankle."
Ireland thankfully have a week off next weekend, when they will be hoping that some of those injuries aren't as bad as first feared. A trip to Murrayfield is next up in two weeks time and Rob Kearney is confident that most of the players will be fit in time for that game: "You always have a lengthy injury list after these type of tests. That's why the week's break is really welcomed by us. I think we're lucky that we generally tend to recover quite quickly." Here's hoping.
5. Where Now for Ireland and Declan Kidney?
This defeat will hurt. Make no mistake about it. Not only was it against the 'old enemy' but it was also against a side that were there for the taking. In fact, the grand slam was there for the taking this year. Ireland's grand slam hopes are now in tatters but looking on a slightly positive note, there are still hopes that they might claim the Championship with England still having to play both France and Wales.
If you are to believe what you read in the papers, Declan Kidney simply had to win the Grand Slam in order to lead Ireland into the 2015 World Cup. Now that this isn't going to happen, question marks will again be raised over his future. Irish fans' main gripe with Kidney will have been his lack of plan B. Regardless of what was said in the press room after the game, Ireland simply did not have a back up plan.
Kidney's decision to remove Brian O'Driscoll as captain and opt for Jamie Heaslip again looked questionable yesterday. It wasn't only Heaslip's poor display but he also showed a serious lack of leadership when Irish backs were against the wall. If Kidney was insistent on removing O'Driscoll as captain, it looks increasingly obvious that Rory Best was the better choice.
Kidney's opposite number Stuart Lancaster was as humble as ever after the game and fittingly summed up the game and it's wet conditions:"At Test level if you’ve got a day where it’s not far off freezing and pouring down with rain, it’s always going to be one type of game. It’s all about small margins and gains." England not only handled the conditions better, but they thrived under them.
Declan Kidney remains as defiant as ever and maintains: "I've always said, once we have ourselves right, we'll always be in a good place against anybody." Unfortunately Ireland got it all wrong yesterday which may prove damning to Kidney's tenure in charge of Ireland.