As we speed towards the beginning of the Rugby World Cup, Ireland made the trip to London for their 2ⁿᵈ warm-up match against an England side that had faced off against Wales home and away in the preceding weeks. Such is the state of the World Rugby rankings, a win would see the Irish take the top spot from Wales for the first time in their history, despite a poor Six Nations. However despite taking an early lead through Jordan Larmour, tries from Joe Cokanasiga, Elliot Daly and Manu Tuilagi gave England a 26-10 lead, before a further 5 tries in the second half resulted in a comfortable 57-15 victory.
Eddie Jones has (rightly, in my opinion) come in for plenty of questions and criticisms over the last couple of seasons. Following this match, there may be more coming his way. Ben Youngs’ form has been questionable both for club and country over the last year, yet he has continued to not only be picked by Eddie Jones, but be picked as the clear starter! Against Ireland, he had an awful match. His kicks were often off target so that Ireland could take the ball uncontested, a poor pass in open play brought an end to an overlap on halfway and a series of 3 bad passes slowed down and eventually ended a promising attack that had made it into the Irish 22. The last of these passes was exceptionally awful as he took the ball, held the pass before deliberately playing it into a retreating Cian Healy to try and win a penalty for offside (cynical play that I hate seeing) despite there not even being an offside line due tot he ball having been offloaded out of the tackle. Willi Heinz’s introduction was a positive for England as his first touch of the ball saw him put in a contestable box kick that allowed Manu Tuilagi to smash Jordan Larmour the moment he landed with the ball, while many of his actions felt much more accurate.
Heinz has the playing style to be the starter at the World Cup, but he has just 3 caps to his name compared to Youngs’ 90 Test caps (88 for England, 2 for the Lions), which makes me think it is highly unlikely the Gloucester captain is given the starting spot in the big games, despite being clearly the form option. Given how quickly Danny Care fell down the pecking order after a couple of bad matches, it is hard to understand how Youngs looks set to start at the World Cup while players like Danny Care, Ben Spencer and Dan Robson watch on from home.
The Irish have been very lucky with the way the World Cup pools feel together as they look very beatable at the moment. They are usually so solid in defence, but in this match were finding it almost impossible to stop the men in white. Time and time again, England found themselves with an overlap and took advantage of Jacob Stockdale often shooting out to try and stop the attack with a man-and-ball tackle rather than holding back to try taking away the space.
While I think part of this was from the team often defending from out to in, I think part of it as well was due to not dealing with the England players earlier in the move. With playmakers at 10 and 12, a physical presence at 13, a ball-player at 15 and 2 wingers who are happy to come into midfield for England, not to mention a pack full of willing carriers, the Irish were just finding themselves overwhelmed in midfield and this was leading to them getting caught too narrow as they tried to plug the gaps in the middle.
With most top teams now playing with at least 2 playmakers in the back line, Ireland need to find a way to shore up their midfield defence while not compromising themselves out wide, otherwise they could find themselves still in search of a first World Cup semifinal in 4 years’ time.
RWC2019 Winners & Losers
With second row being a position of depth for Ireland, a couple of turnovers – including one as an England lineout transitioned into a maul – will have helped Iain Henderson make his case for inclusion in the squad. The struggles in the lineout over this match (Rory Best and Sean Cronin completed only 10 of their 15 lineouts in this match) could have just opened up a spot in the squad for Munster’s Niall Scannell, either as a 3ʳᵈ choice hooker or instead of Cronin if Joe Schmidt chooses to take only 2 hookers.
With the forwards struggling to sufficiently impose themselves on the game, it was a hard day for Ross Byrne and I think that his best chance of making the squad will be as a 3ʳᵈ fly half if Joey Carbery fails to recover in time. Meanwhile, the sight of Cian Healy leaving the field just before half time will certainly have the selectors nervous.
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