A first glimpse of a future without Ireland’s longstanding thinktank at half-back, a first glimpse of a side that cannot quite summon the fury of recent times – and it reveals a work in progress with much still to accomplish. This England team were in the World Cup final a year ago and are Six Nations champions, but if that is the standard to which Ireland aspire, which it must be, Andy Farrell found much to ponder here, his team manhandled out of this contest to a degree surely inconceivable to recent iterations in green.
Much was familiar. Ireland made England tackle nearly four times as much as the other way round, but they found hosts who were more than willing.
It has long been felt that without certain foundations, Ireland quite suddenly become half the team. They have invested much in a solid set-piece and a certain efficient brutality in their phase play. Most alarming from their point of view, despite last week’s comfortable dispatching of a Wales team who were grand-slam champions a year ago, was the disintegration in the first quarter, at least, of so much the Irish hold dear.
The scrum, the subject of one of Eddie Jones’s cheekier – for which read baseless – exercises in mind games during the week, wobbled early on, for which Ireland were punished indirectly by Jonny May’s first try. Of far more concern was his second, less than five minutes later.
When absolutely all else fails, Ireland can surely rely on a formidable offensive lineout. Whenever they set one up deep in a 22, there are a few ominous possibilities in the offing, none of which involve a try at the other end for the opposition.
May is a player at the top of the world game, having now tacked on various technical proficiencies to the raw pace that has always marked him out as special. Many teams have felt the sting of May’s fast disappearing heels.
All the same, Chris Farrell will remain haunted by what followed. Perhaps he was expecting a siege on the England line, but when Quinn Roux knocked the attacking lineout on, Maro Itoje and Henry Slade transferred the ball with haste to their winger. May paused opposite Farrell, almost as if to show him the revolver in his holster, and with a skip he was gone. From his own five-metre line. From out of the wreckage of a laid-low international centre. The rest of May’s brilliant cameo will bear multiple replays for years to come. But perhaps not in the Farrell household.
An optimist could argue at that point – 12-0 down with a quarter gone – that had it not been for the England No 11 all might be well in Ireland’s world. But that score did not flatter the hosts.
Ireland moved on to that other staple of theirs, the multi-phase battering. Alas, there is no battering England when they are in this mood. The silence in the stadium only accentuated the ferocity of those defenders in white. Farrell and Bundee Aki have skittled their fair share of defenders, Cian Healy far more. All of them, and others beside, were stopped in their tracks, often driven back whence they came.
Even when they did make an incision – which happened once when Keith Earls successfully targeted the one relative weakness in England’s defence, Elliot Daly – England swarmed around, as if the threat to their line merely rendered their duty a little more interesting. Billy Vunipola, in one of his more animated moods, pounced at the next breakdown.
A couple of Owen Farrell penalties stretched England’s lead to 18-0 early in the second half, which more or less did for the contest. Only then did Ireland start to settle. Their set-piece had by now settled, which meant the familiar wave of Ireland phases was steady. But it rarely threatened.
Two moments stood out in all the recycling, when they probed a little more at that vulnerability behind England’s defence. From the second of two clever chips by Ireland’s fly-halfs, this by the replacement Billy Burns, Jacob Stockdale was away for a late try.
Respectability in the end, then, but Andy Farrell has never settled for that – and is unlikely to do so now.