Mark Reason: Ireland expose England's flaws on a filthy night in Dublin

The referee blows the whistle at full time as Ireland beat England 13-9.

The referee blows the whistle at full time as Ireland beat England 13-9.

There were seconds left when England tried to go the length of the pitch, through the clammy mist and through decades of Irish resentment over past wrongs. And everyone in the ground knew it was never going to happen. England and the winning run were finished.

You could hear it in the swell of defiant song rolling down from the stands. You could see it in the dying desperation of England's body language. It was over. And there was a fearful symmetry to it all. Just as Ireland had stopped the All Blacks, so they had overcome England, denying them the record run of victories, the Grand Slam and the Triple Crown, with a 13-9 win in Dublin.

Ireland's captain Rory Best said at the end: "England are a massive side and we knew we had to produce a really big performance. Every time England got a bit of momentum, the crowd lifted and it was a big lift to us to stop that."

Close but no Grand Slam for England coach Eddie Jones.
John Sibley/ Reuters

Close but no Grand Slam for England coach Eddie Jones.

It was maybe not the most articulate sentence in the world, but it was a miracle that Best could speak at all. He went off for an injury head assessment at one point, but every player who took to their pitch will need their head examining after that one. It was a terrifyingly brutal game. England didn't just have to beat Ireland, they had to take on history, just as they did in Paris last year. It is what makes the Six Nations so compelling and so hard to win.

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It was a filthy night and England's captain Dylan Hartley said you were better off without the ball, better off defending than trying to play. So England had to be accurate. They had to play with the precision of the All Blacks at their best. And they were not quite good enough.

England's Elliot Daly is tackled by Ireland's Andrew Conway during Ireland's 13-9 win.

England's Elliot Daly is tackled by Ireland's Andrew Conway during Ireland's 13-9 win.

When Jared Payne, who mixed brilliance with calamity, dropped a sitter in the opening minutes, England had a prime attacking scrum. They worked the midfield runners in the sort of threatening pattern that had taken Scotland apart, luring in Ireland's defenders and opening the space out wide.

The try was on but the timing of Mike Brown's run had to be perfect and Owen Farrell's pass had to be accurate. But England's skills were not up to it and the game began as it would end with Brown knocking on the ball.

It was a night that exposed the biggest flaw in England's game. When the heat is on, just as it was in Cardiff earlier in the Championship, Ben Youngs can fray at the edges. He was charged down early on and under pressure his kicking was not up to its usual standard. And the hesitancy in Youngs's pass put George Ford under pressure throughout the match.

And yet so much had seemed to be going for England before the game had even started. Ireland had lost Conor Murray to the shoulder injury he had sustained against Wales and No 8 Jamie Heaslip pulled out after getting a bang in the warm-up.

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The latter was perhaps not the blow it might have been a few years ago. Heaslip has looked a diminished force for some time, like his back row partner Sean O'Brien who put down two passes in the game. Peter O'Mahony replaced Heaslip, with CJ Stander moving to 8, and ended up as man of the match. O'Mahony stole a crucial England lineout at the death and was another who could scarcely speak through his exhaustion.

Kieran Marmion, the man who replaced Murray at halfback, was quite magnificent. He did not take on too much, he made a vital try saving tackle on Elliot Daly in the second half, and his passing was so much more accurate than England's.

It had to be because England wanted to take Jonny Sexton out of the game. It was clearly a plan. James Haskell, Maro Itoje (twice) and replacement Tom Wood all smashed into Ireland's first five on the edge of lateness. No doubt Steve Hansen will be smiling through Sexton's pain. The more ferocious this game became, the greater the likelihood of the Lions being physically diminished.

After Wood's hit in the second half Best protested to referee Jerome Garces of France.

"We are in charge," said Garces.

"Yes, but I also have a responsibility to my team," said Best.

Perhaps Sexton had lost the official's sympathy when he had a whinge in the first half, having briefly assumed leadership when Best had gone off for his head check. Sexton made his point physically and Garces was unimpressed, saying, "You are captain, but don't touch me, thank you."

England's assault on Sexton was not attractive, although it was just about within the bounds. But discipline wins games like this and England's back row crucially lost their's at a point in the first half. Haskell and Itoje gave away successive needless penalties, allowing Sexton to kick Ireland into the corner, setting up the lineout off which Iain Henderson scored the game's only try.

These matches are always decided by the smallest margins. When England had the chance to do the same to Ireland, they simply were not brave enough. A superb, if risky nudge off a penalty in either half, would have put them near to the corner.

But Farrell could only take them to the 22, from where they never looked likely to score.

It was a bitter-sweet day for family Farrell, because dad Andy is in charge of the Ireland defence that shut out England. Never mind son, there will be other days.

Ah, but will there? Chances like this don't come along too often. And at the end, when England were trying to run back from the point of no return, your mind went back to 2013, back to the day when the All Blacks were calm enough and precise enough to keep passing until Ryan Crotty scored in the corner.

England could not live up to that. There was too much white mist in their heads and in the dank air. "It's not perfect," said Hartley, "We didn't slam it, but hey, ho, we're still the champions."

I suspect New Zealand may disagree.

 - Stuff


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