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Ireland’s Grand Slam Hopes Die In Twickenham

englandirelandIt felt like 2009 in the Millenium stadium.

On that day, Ireland were playing for a Grand Slam and a Triple Crown. Having beaten all before them, they just had to overcome the Welsh. They struggled first half, going in a couple of penalties down. No panic. They emerged second half, put tries on the board and nicked it in the end, to secure the glory of perfection.

It felt like a similar day today. It was a ferocious first half, with Ireland spending most of it on defensive duty. The English pinned Ireland back early, where they survived a backs to the wall effort with England pressing on the five metre line after six minutes. The tackle count was rising high even that early on. The pressure was on. England were looking to set down a marker, with a win bringing them right back into the hunt for championship honours.

Ireland had a scare though. With defenders sucked in, England spread the ball outside, with Peter O’Mahony’s desperate grab at Jonny May’s scalp, along with pressure from Andrew Trimble and Conor Murray, the English winger dropped the ball as he got over the line. It had taken a replay to make it clear, with many having never given a second thought to the validity of the try.

Ireland went in search of a response, and were able to work some territory. On fifteen minutes, Jonathan Sexton worked his traditional loop following good line-out ball. After receiving the ball back, he launched a cross-field kick towards Trimble. Trimble came down with it, stepped back inside and was stopped just short. The ball was recycled, but eventually slipped free and England were able to clear.

It says a lot about the kind of game this was that the first shot at goal came in the twenty-fourth minute. Sexton was called for a double-move, and Owen Farrell took on a difficult shot, not far in from the right touchline and close to the half-way line, but he slotted it between the posts with ease.

The battle raged on in the middle of the field, although it was heading more towards Ireland’s half than England’s. There were brief moments of potential, as Brian O’ Driscoll always seemed to be able to find some room when no one else could, and Trimble was a threat in the air, although he was targeted on few occasions. Mostly it was a defensive effort, though. Jamie Heaslip won a great turnover on the ground, Rory Best and Conor Murray were busy tackling all over the park, and a Devon Toner tackle saw English number eight Billy Vunipola have to be taken off. Introducing Ben Morgan did not diminish their carrying game at ball.

Farrell struck the post with another shot at goal, and went down the line with another penalty with a minute to play in the first half. It was a brash decision, and one that did not pay off as Luther Burrell knocked on while trying to offload, and Ireland went in only three points down.

Ireland had managed few successful attacks in the opening half, but it was still a very close game and the feeling was Ireland would regroup after talking with Joe Schmidt. Ireland had been bossed on the ground, meaning any ball that did make it back was slow. England were committing big numbers and making it hard for Ireland to move the ball, cutting off the space around the tackle area and effectively nullifying the back line in the process.

Ireland came out looking to take control of the game at the start of the second half, and kicked a penalty down the line to the English twenty-two early on. The ball came off the top and Sexton gave it to Heaslip, who popped it off to Rob Kearney. Kearney had picked a beautiful line, found a gap in the English defence and ran in under the posts, with Sexton the one closest to bringing him down.

Sexton added the conversion under the posts, and Ireland took the lead and had their tails up. Although they were initially sloppy on the kick-off, allowing Billy Twelvetrees to claim it from under their noses, they turned the ball over from a penalty and Ireland cleared again. Further penalties came and Ireland moved into English territory, and Courtney Lawes gave away another penalty for coming in from the side, and Sexton extended Ireland’s lead.

The game looked to be swinging Ireland’s way, but the English response was impressive. Mike Brown was great under the high ball and effective on the counter attack, and they were never short of ball carriers, nor did they ever stop working. But Sexton was guilty of some poor kicking, possibly feeling the effects of a number of hard hits he took throughout the game. England butchered a chance to equalise by seemingly refusing to sling the ball out wide, but they knocked over the penalty to reduce the deficit to four.

They followed it up by reclaiming their lead, after great work from Brown to burst through a gap in the midfield. He laid the ball off to Danny Care, who strolled home and scored under the posts. It was a lead they would never relinquish, and the last score of the game.

Ireland had areas of superiority in the game, such as the scrum, while their lineout and maul were also effective. But their advantages were relatively slight, while England had success with their own lineout and maul games. Where a frantic last twenty minutes would have been expected, it failed to materialise. England continued to play intelligently, making few mistakes and often recovering them when they did. Ireland were able to create very little really, and truly they never looked like stealing back the lead, as ball consistently failed to go to hand. There were some good performances, but the team’s game plan was dismantled by England’s, and the better team won.

It isn’t 2009 anymore. Just ask Brian O’Driscoll.

Image courtesy of Eurosport/Reuters

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