HomeFashionIreland lose their grip on grand slam in dignified but familiar fashion...

Ireland lose their grip on grand slam in dignified but familiar fashion | Jonathan Liew


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This time, there would be none of the old comforts or encouragements. No “well played, lads”. No “good processes” or “great effort”. No story they could spin themselves about how this was an evolving team, coming up against far stronger ­opponents, and you know, ultimately it’s performances that matters at this stage. Just another Ireland defeat at Twickenham, and somehow this one seemed to sting just a little harder than most of the others. When you’re going for a second consecutive grand slam, those are just the breaks.

The days leading up to this game had weighed heavy with expectation. And this in itself is still something of a novelty for Ireland teams on English turf. As was the usual hubris from all the usual places. Jamie Heaslip asserting that Ireland would need to go down to 13 players for England to win. Plenty of talk in the Irish media – at least before Scotland’s slip-up earlier in the afternoon – about wrapping up the championship with a four-try bonus point.

But for those who remembered the bad times, Twickenham will never be easy prey. The grizzled ­memories simply run too deep. The serial drubbings of the 1980s and 1990s. The eight wooden spoons in 19 years. The 50-18 defeat right at the very start of the Six Nations era, the sort that raised severe questions about whether Ireland would ever be able to compete. The 45-11 mauling at the hands and feet of Jonny Wilkinson in 2002, after which Eddie O’Sullivan came out and enthused that “our efforts in the second half probably just kept the score down”.

These days Ireland no longer fight for pyrrhic or moral victories. They no longer arrive in hope. West London was picture perfect on a pale Saturday evening, shoals of green swimming in amongst the white jerseys and waxy jackets. This, too, is something that has changed over the decades. This Ireland team come with an entourage of thousands. England, meanwhile, surfed a wave of strange insurgent energy, sensing an unmissable opportunity to spoil.

And while Ireland are more comfortable with the tag of favourites these days, there are certain games, and certain moments in those games, when you can still squeeze their pressure points, take them out of their comfort zone. Perhaps such a moment arrived midway through the second half, with captain Peter O’Mahony on the sidelines with a yellow card, with the home crowd rampant, with Andy Farrell’s 6-2 bench split having been badly exposed by injuries to Calvin Nash and Ciaran Frawley.

Peter O’Mahony yellow card proved pivotal in the second half. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/INPHO/Shutterstock

Frawley himself had been a replacement for Nash, who had come off second best after taking a fearsome hit from a running Tommy Freeman. Now his departure forced Jamison Gibson-Park to the wing, with Conor Murray on at scrum-half. And Ireland really did look terribly disjointed in those subsequent minutes, a monumental wave of England pressure culminating in Ben Earl plunging over with 20 minutes remaining. Lowe responded with a scintillating score after a magnificent aerial claim by Hugo Keenan. Crowley missed what would prove to be a crucial conversion.

For all this it was England who still seemed to be making the running, still the team trying things. Ireland had been a touch fortunate to go in ahead at half-time after being ­dominated in terms of possession and territory. Perhaps this seemed to lull them into a certain false security. For all England’s supremacy, Ireland immaculately refused to panic, still continued to go through their ­processes, essentially losing their grip on their game in a very dignified way. Farrell refused to bring the forwards off the bench until the hour.

This was a script familiar from the World Cup quarter-final against New Zealand, a game that Ireland seemed to have right where they wanted it, right up until the moment when they lost it. Could Ireland have used a little more urgency in those crucial moments? Did they try too hard to manage the pace of the game, and leave themselves exposed when England upped the tempo? These are the questions that will exercise Farrell and his team in the coming days.

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O’Mahony had a poor game, but he was right about one thing, at least. “Winning away at any stadium in this competition is incredibly tough,” he had said in the buildup. “Certainly we’ve picked up some wins here. But you look at them and we’ve had to play unbelievably well.” Yep, nice try, you thought at the time. But really this was no false modesty: O’Mahony was simply recognising that for any Ireland side, the next frontier is always the hardest.

Ireland will kick on and kick back. There is still a championship to be won against Scotland next weekend, and for all that went wrong here there is still so much over the last few years that went right. Perhaps this defeat will hasten the transition a little towards the younger generation, players like Ryan Baird who have been patiently waiting for their chance. And on the bright side, they don’t have another World Cup quarter-final to play for at least another three years.

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