By Charlie Morgan
FAST-PACED and fraught with tension, England’s narrow win over Ireland on Saturday was roundly described as a ‘proper’ Test match. For the first time in this season’s Six Nations we had two sides close to their best – an absorbing encounter saturated with tenacity and tactical intrigue.
On balance, Stuart Lancaster’s charges just about deserved to deny their visitors the Triple Crown. In doing so, they earned a chance to snatch one for themselves by wreaking revenge on Wales. Some vital lessons have been learned in the process, too.
Discipline lapses cost dear
Jack Nowell’s youthful exuberance is perhaps his most important trait. It is certainly the quality that defines his all-court excellence and willingness to get involved – something Ireland struggled to deal with. However, the needless shove on Dave Kearney just after half-time was naïve.
Following a cagey opening, England would have spoken about building pressure through territory to begin the second period. Nowell’s challenge chasing Danny Care’s contestable box-kick gave Ireland a penalty. Sexton kicked to touch and 40 seconds later Rob Kearney was under the posts. For Lancaster, the number of collective caps in his squad is far more than an inane statistic to fill column inches. The higher that tally, the smaller the likelihood of glaring, game-turning lapses.
England must now challenge themselves on even the most minute details. Wasted overlaps will be mulled over during the next two weeks. So will Jonny May’s failure to convert a clear scoring opportunity. A couple of aimless punts from Owen Farrell, plus the fly-half’s late shoulder-charge on Conor Murray as well. Nowell’s mistake is sure to get an embarrassing dressing down in front of the entire squad – a painful but positive exercise. Only the best is now acceptable.
Launchbury launches into elite
When Craig Joubert blew the final whistle, Lancaster and Andy Farrell erupted into celebration. Out on the pitch, their players could not manage anything as energetic. After eclipsing the great Paul O’Connell with a stunning 80-minute shift, Joe Launchbury just collapsed onto Henry Thomas, his nearest colleague. He was physically and emotionally spent.
That much was understandable. His performance was majestic and personified the dynamism that Graham Rowntree wants from England’s pack. Ruck pilfers proved nauseating calls for a ‘proper seven’ can stop, cute passes transferred the point of contact effectively and the last minute tap-tackle on Dave Kearney was totally staggering.
Fitness permitting, Lions tours and greatness await the 23 year-old in the long term. However, having given his only underwhelming international showing during the 30-3 defeat to Warren Gatland’s men a year ago, Launchbury won’t be looking past Wales.
Just as Ireland’s classy try was a copybook transfer of a Leinster play – Jamie Heaslip’s composure and vision unleashing a typically ambitious, rapier-like run from Rob Kearney – Harlequins boss Conor O’Shea would have been purring at the Danny Care effort that got Twickenham rocking. A slick Chris Robshaw offload, jet-heeled acceleration by Mike Brown and intelligent support from the scrum-half was a formula perfected on the Guildford training paddock.
Similarly, an almost telepathic thrower-caller axis between Northampton Saints Dylan Hartley and Courtney Lawes is ensuring fantastic accuracy at the lineout. Lancaster’s set-up is very tight-knit – the former schoolteacher has done a brilliant job of forging iron-clad comradeship from the ashes of the 2011 World Cup campaign. Making the most out of established domestic blends has been a big feature of that.
Don’t worry about David Wilson
The reaction around Twickenham as Ireland’s scrum asserted ascendancy was one of disbelieving incredulity. England supporters simply aren’t used to seeing their set-piece creak, so four lost put-ins from nine astounded a lot of people. Cian Healy’s outstanding display had a lot to do with that, and he did better David Wilson comprehensively at times. However, there is no need to fret about the Bath man’s selection ahead of the Wales clash.
Rhythm is an essential of scrummaging, and a meagre return of 47 minutes in two months is not the required game-time you want ahead of a pivotal contest. By contrast, Healy faced one of the best tightheads on the planet in Adam Jones a fortnight ago – the technicalities of the Leinsterman’s tight play are in fine order. Wilson’s work in the loose, making seven tackles and a few rumbling charges, will have done wonders for his match fitness. Everything gets easier from there.
Mike Brown – the world’s form full-back
With Israel Folau and Leigh Halfpenny already jostling for the world’s finest 15, the above is a rather bold statement. But it is impossible to argue that Brown does not deserve it. Another massively influential outing scooped another official man-of-the-match gong and continued the immense consistency that has characterized his season in an England jersey.
On Saturday there was the sinew-straining attack – 82 carrying metres, five beaten Irishmen, two clean breaks and an assist – but more eye-catching were his defensive heroics, defined by the goalkeeper-style dive to intercept Brian O’Driscoll’s grubber early on. Spurred on by a desire to prove himself, Brown is building the type of aura reserved for very special players.