Ireland lose mental battle, as scars of 2019 rear their head again
Ireland actually won that second half 12-7.
It's pathetic to even write that, isn't it? But it could have been so much worse. It wasn't, because the bench fronted up and England took their foot off the pedal.
Speaking in the immediate aftermath of Ireland's 24-12 pummelling at the hands of England in Twickenham, Johnny Sexton was asked by Sinéad Kissane was this one of the toughest days of his career. His response?
It's hard to speak so soon after a game like that, but the problem isn't what he said. It's that maybe he's right. Maybe it wasn't. In the last 12 months alone, Ireland were blown away by England in the Aviva Stadium, almost nilled by Wales in Cardiff, thumped again by Eddie Jones' men in the build-up to the World Cup, embarrassed by Japan in the Pool Stages before being dismantled by New Zealand in the Quarter Finals. Where does this latest implosion by Ireland actually rate there?
All of the tentative optimism that came from a solid win over Scotland and an impressive beating of Wales in the opening two games have firmly disappeared in the rear-view mirror. Yet, events slightly further back seem to be the real thing holding Ireland back. One bad performance does not make a bad team. But this is not just one bad performance.
England have gotten great joy in starting games at a hundred miles an hour, no more so than against Ireland in the last three meetings between the sides. Ireland knew they would play with a ferocious line speed, they would attempt to bully them in the collisions, they would utilise the likes of Maro Itoje and Courtney Lawes at the breakdown to stifle Ireland and they would want to match Ireland in the air. They did all that, but Ireland had no response.
At no stage in the game was there a moment you could say Ireland assessed what was happening in front of them, and attempted to fix it. There was no acceptance that their kicking game was failing to relieve pressure and a change in approach. There was no realisation that Ireland were losing yards in the collision and an attempt to put England on the backfoot by utilising the space behind the rapidly advancing English defence. It was the definition of stupidity; doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
Ireland came into this tournament in a strange situation of having somewhat lowered expectations yet still under severe pressure and scrutiny after a shocking 2019. Some players, such as CJ Stander, Andrew Conway and Peter O'Mahony, have used that as fuel to drive some of their best performances in the last two years. Others, such as Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton, have looked well below their best. This is a side that is still suffering from the mental scars of an appalling 2019, but how do you fix them?
The most obvious choice is by using fresh blood. This gets skewed by the fact that Ireland host Italy in their next outing, traditionally one where fringe players are given a chance to notch some game time. Any changes made by new Head Coach Andy Farrell will have to be taken with a kilo of salt, because they won't be a fair reflection of what he saw in this game.
But those new(ish) faces made a huge difference coming off the bench, no more so than John Cooney. The Ulster number 9 has been the standout performer in his position this season in Ireland, and arguably in Europe, yet still hasn't been given the opportunity to show that from the start in an Irish shirt. He didn't even make it onto the plane to Japan. When he came on for Murray in the 55th minute today, he knew was getting more gametime in Twickenham than he did in his previous two outings. Fair, the game was beyond Ireland by that point, but in those 25 minutes he was easily one of Ireland's best performers on a torrid day at the home of English rugby. In fact, the bench did a momentous job in denying England a bonus point and preventing an absolute pummelling.
Conor Murray was poor. Again. His box-kicks heaped more pressure on Ireland rather than relieving them in any way. He wasn't given a good platform by a struggling pack, but he still failed to consider the English linespeed and was instead still sending one-out runners into collisions where they were guaranteed to lose yards, or the ball. His captain just outside him, Sexton, had one of his worst outings in a green shirt in recent memory. While his shocking goal-kicking may take most of the unwanted limelight, his game management was perhaps even more damaging.
With Ireland still only 7 down, after a try he will not enjoy watching back this week, Ireland were in the English 22 and given two penalty advantages. Twice, he opted to lump a hit-and-hope crossfield kick with little chance of anything coming of it. Rather than keeping the ball in hand and attempting to force a potential yellow card or a try, he took the 'free shot' option far too literally and let England off the hook. The fact he then skewed the resulting penalty wide from such a kickable position almost comes secondary to the fact that he had made the wrong decision, twice. Having been at fault for Ireland being behind, he was then arguably on the block for Ireland not scoring a try, and most definitely to blame for the deficit not being 4. Ross Byrne kicked down the line, and John Cooney took the final conversion. That's not acceptable for an outhalf at Test level.
Ireland's inability to adapt when a game is not going their way is troubling, and we have now seen it happen to them yet again in a big game. The body language after the two tries, and throughout the opening 60 minutes, was damning. This is a side that, when faced with adversity, don't knuckle down, go through the phases and settle down. They panic. It's not "let's fix this". It's 'ah, here we go again". Until that changes, these performances will come again and again.
Andy Farrell has the players, and staff, to bring Ireland back to the heights of 2018. He has the spine of a Leinster team that are currently unbeaten in the league and Europe this season. He has the core of a team that beat everything in front of them just two years ago. The real issue he needs to fix is the mental side of their game. Those scars need to be healed if this team is to perform consistently again. Putting a plaster on a gaping wound is not good enough anymore.