Ireland vs England comment: Question marks hang over Stuart Lancaster's World Cup plans after Six Nations defeat

Joe Schmidt's Ireland look ready for the World Cup, while England still have multiple questions to answer and issues to resolve

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The Independent Online

It was a gesture of pre-calculation which exposed the difference between England and the best and showed what a very steep hill this team have to climb to reach the level they seek with a World Cup now only six months away.

Conor Murray had seen Robbie Henshaw in his peripheral vision and he gestured to him to advance to the spot where he intended to place a steepling kick which would drop out of an azure Dublin sky for the Ireland inside centre to collect, take over the try line and have the dexterity to bring to ground while lying on his back.

That kick of Murray’s was the singular moment of beauty on a bitter Irish day – straight out of the St Munchin’s College fields in Limerick where he first did his stuff – and though the narrative of England’s defeat must encompass the errors, panic, a precision of kicking that was less than perfect and the sheer irresistibility of Ireland’s energy, there is a broader point about them lacking that something which creates a margin of superiority. If there was a red-rose moment to take the breath away then it belonged to the desperation of the England rearguard, when Alex Goode sprinted to collect a ball Henshaw had kicked flat and chased towards the posts, evading three tackles as he brought it out to safety.

The teams who aspire to beat the world in the autumn require something more than a basic game-plan, but the troubling part of what we witnessed from England yesterday was that even the plan itself proved a little too much. There was a laugh of muted frustration from Stuart Lancaster when he was asked at the end if the discipline required in a game that was always destined to be “an arm wrestle,” as he put it, had been emphasised to the players. “We definitely stressed discipline enough,” he said, with a pained expression – the inalienable truth being that England were just not capable of coping with the territory-based game of possession and breakdown which made Jonathan Sexton’s penalties a clear and present danger at any time.

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You could see why Lancaster, with that implacably serious expression of his, was wincing. The penalties which put England a try away from near-certain defeat by half time were self-inflicted. Such as Luther Burrell’s dummy pass on his own 22 – a very bad idea, 10 minutes in, which had green shirts swarming all over him like locusts. The ensuing penalty, Sexton’s third at that point, was as elementary as it was inevitable.

Two further motifs from that first half revealed why Joe Schmidt’s Ireland are a World Cup prospect, six months out, but Lancaster’s England are not. First, Sexton’s scream of satisfaction after the second of the hammering first half tackles which took the ball from George Ford (the physical component of this game had been overlooked in the pre-match conversation). He also screamed when he missed the penalty which accrued from that turnover – one of no fewer than 10 in that first half.

Second, Dylan Hartley, being manhandled back by the Ireland physio, impervious to his own need for treatment. It was a Celtic blizzard beyond England, who were forced to make 83 tackles to Ireland’s 40 in that first half and incapable of thinking straight in their occasional pockets of calm, as Ford’s choice of touch – rather than the posts – when a second penalty materialised, only served to reveal.

“Experience counts and we lost that a bit,” was one of Lancaster’s principal grounds for mitigation, though we have reached the stage in a World Cup year when that kind of justification cannot count. We are still trying to calibrate where this side actually fit in the scheme of the things.

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When Lancaster’s players stormed the second half to beat their World Cup pool opponents Wales in Cardiff  three weeks ago – their finest 40 minutes of rugby in Lancaster’s three years at the helm – they seemed to be at the required level. Dublin was a place for them to demonstrate whether that reflected a bigger picture.  Instead it puts back in the scrambled picture that the autumn internationals left us with.

Lancaster sought no excuses, though there is certainly something demeaning about the way Schmidt’s kicking game is referred to. “There was lot of [kicking] – 44 kicks in open play,” Lancaster said.  The New Zealander’s obsessive preparation about the opposition is, like his focus on bringing the best from what he has, creating a very dangerous force. No side is going into matches better prepared than his own and though Paul O’Connell’s age-defying performances cannot fill the Brian O’Driscoll-shaped hole in the Irish ranks, they are going some way.

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Schmidt has a quiet ruthlessness and a capacity to build men into mountains, means there will be no ghosts. “He’s a player’s coach because he notices what you do,”O’Driscoll reflected of Schmidt in his autobiography. “If you’re a workhorse, doing your best stuff unseen by almost everyone, he knows you’ve done the work. He gives you credit. And he stores it.”

Warren Gatland committed the serious error of fuelling England’s incentive in Cardiff, sanctioning a pre-match circus which entailed them stepping out first into the middle of a lights show. Schmidt’s players took the opposite tack, chosing to give England “toffee” as Bob Paisley would have called it – buttering them up and declaring them as good as any England side in recent times. The strategy worked. They would have known that Clive Woodward’s England left here with a win against a strong Ireland side in 2003 which that coach has always viewed as of huge psychological significance. A win which put World Cup fuel in the squad’s tank. Instead, for all Lancaster’s suggestions that things might not be so bad because “every year the team that wins [the Six Nations] lose one along the way,” he – and we – are left wondering where they can expect to stand tall in the world order.