Six Nations 2014: Stuart Lancaster’s young England side show world of promise after 13-10 win over Ireland
It could have gone horribly wrong in so many ways between the time England’s players left the team bus for their pre-match parade through the green-wellied set in the swanky west car park – who could be sure that Chris Robshaw would not do himself a mischief slipping on a sliver of smoked salmon, or tripping over a bottle of Chablis? – and the final white-knuckle moments of a memorable struggle, when Joe Launchbury somehow found the energy to make the tap-tackle that won the game, defying all rugby logic. The fact that things ultimately went so right confirmed that Robshaw and company will take an awful lot of beating when the World Cup comes to town next year.
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves here: a three-point victory over Ireland – an Ireland who are about to lose Brian O’Driscoll to retirement and have surely seen the best of Gordon D’Arcy and Paul O’Connell – is hardly a scientifically proven indicator of impending global supremacy. But Twickenham is going through a rapid process of refortification, just as it did under Clive Woodward in the early years of the last decade, and if England perform with this level of resilience in the pool stage of the 2015 tournament, they can expect to be in the shake-up when the glittering prizes are to be seized.
Stuart Lancaster recognises this, although with Wales next up in 12 days’ time he was in no mood to talk in such terms after the 13-10 victory on Saturday. There again, he had no need to say a word. He has been positively sphinx-like in his inscrutability on match days since succeeding Martin Johnson a little over two years ago, so the fact that he could be seen bouncing around the stand like a latter-day Woodward as his players closed out Saturday’s contest spoke volumes.
Lancaster’s rugby instinct told him that this was the most significant victory of his tenure to date – and yes, he did include the famous taming of the All Blacks in 2012 in that appraisal. “We saw a proper Test match today,” he said, by which he meant a game played on the grandest of scales in terms of its physicality, between two teams whose strengths and weaknesses were in perfect balance.
“When you look at the quality of the Irish players – their cohesion, the level of confidence they brought with them after their big victory over Wales, the ability they have in their coaching team – it was a huge examination of our character and we passed it.” Or, as his chief lieutenant Andy Farrell put it in earthier fashion: “We showed massive balls.”
None more so than Launchbury, whose display was the best by an English second-row forward since Simon Shaw’s mighty effort for the British & Irish Lions against the Springboks in Pretoria in 2009 – maybe even since the aforementioned Johnson’s command performance in the World Cup final in Sydney in 2003. The fresh-faced lock from Wasps was all over everything – in the scrum, at the line-out, at the breakdown, on the carry, in the tackle – and when he found himself operating on the blind-side flank after Tom Wood had cramped up and left the field 11 minutes from time, he did not for a single second look out of place.
Leaving aside his heavy-legged rumble across the wide-open prairies in successful pursuit of the wing Dave Kearney – a feat described by the hooker Dylan Hartley as “fantastic” – Launchbury’s work with Courtney Lawes was at the very heart of matters.
“What strikes me most about him is his decision making,” Lancaster said admiringly. “He has such an understanding of when to go into the breakdown in search of a turnover and when to hold shape and keep the defensive line. He’s a hell of a player.”
O’Connell, for so long one of the two or three standout locks in the European game, was sufficiently generous in defeat to strike a similar note on the subject of his opponent. “Launchbury stole a lot of ball from us on the floor, which was quite something for such a big man,” acknowledged the man from Limerick. “Together, he and Lawes will be an excellent pairing for England in the future. They have two real athletes there, two outstanding defenders. They made life very tough for us, I must admit.”
While Launchbury and his mucker were doing everything in their considerable power to prevent the Irish forwards capitalising on a clear superiority at the scrum – “we pride ourselves on our all-court game, our ability to move opponents around the field and take them to the dark places,” the 22-year-old forward remarked, in an unnerving, baby-faced killer kind of way – Mike Brown was having a whale of a time. The full-back is on a very decent run of luck, all of it of his own making, and while the man-of-the-match plaudits would have gone to Launchbury had there been any justice in the world, not even Brown’s worst enemy would accuse him of being wholly undeserving of the award.
Early on, he snuffed out a dangerous kick from O’Driscoll in a style that would have had Petr Cech bowing his head in homage – “ the best goalkeeper’s save I’ve ever seen on a rugby pitch,” said Joe Schmidt, the Ireland coach, through gritted teeth – and he went on to make more yardage with ball in hand than anyone else on view. Some of those yards were decisive; he played the middle man’s role between Robshaw and Danny Care as England completed a clean-cut try that had its genesis in 100 Harlequins training sessions.
There may be more naturally gifted No 15s available to Lancaster, but there is no denying Brown’s importance to the red-rose mindset. “He has attitude,” the coach said. “He brings a level of competitiveness that we value. These are the traits we want to see in our players. He offers other things too: he’s beginning to add strings to our attacking bow and his left-footed kicking game was definitely a factor in this match. But most of all, Mike typifies the spirit we’re trying to develop.”
Heaven knows, England were not flawless. Some of the option-taking at half-back was jaw-droppingly crass – even in this age of contact-obsessed rugby, three-man overlap opportunities are worthy of exploration – and while the ultra-rapid Gloucester wing Jonny May made some striking contributions, there was even less excuse for his failure to score in the right corner midway through the opening quarter than there was for the daft pass he chucked at Brown as Ireland sought to maximise their most productive spell in the perilous minutes after the interval.
Yet when all was said and done, Lancaster saw no reason to make a single back-line substitution. Why? Because despite their errors in the fine detail, the various perpetrators proved themselves completely trustworthy when it came to the big-picture stuff: desire, application, commitment to the cause. On the basis that it’s easier to improve a team’s skill set than it is to give it a soul, the coach can look forward to next year with something more than blind faith.
England: Try Care; Conversion Farrell; Penalties Farrell 2. Ireland: Try R Kearney; Conversion Sexton; Penalty Sexton.
England: M Brown (Harlequins); J Nowell (Exeter), L Burrell (Northampton), W Twelvetrees (Gloucester), J May (Gloucester); O Farrell (Saracens), D Care (Harlequins); J Marler (Harlequins), D Hartley (Northampton), D Wilson (Bath), J Launchbury (Wasps), C Lawes (Northampton), T Wood (Northampton), C Robshaw (Harlequins, capt), B Vunipola (Saracens). Replacements: B Morgan (Gloucester) for B Vunipola, 36; M Vunipola (Saracens) for Marler, 63; H Thomas (Sale) for Wilson, 69; D Attwood (Bath) for Wood, 69; T Youngs (Leicester) for Hartley, 74.
Ireland: R Kearney (Leinster); A Trimble (Ulster), B O’Driscoll (Leinster), G D’Arcy (Leinster), D Kearney (Leinster); J Sexton (Racing Metro), C Murray (Munster); C Healy (Leinster), R Best (Ulster), M Ross (Leinster), D Toner (Leinster), P O’Connell (Munster, capt), P O’Mahony (Munster), C Henry (Ulster), J Heaslip (Leinster). Replacements: M Moore (Leinster) for Ross, 61; F McFadden (Leinster) for Trimble, 65; I Henderson (Ulster) for O’M ahony, 69; J McGrath (Leinster) for Healy, 71; J Murphy (Leinster) for Henry, 73; S Cronin (Leinster) for Best, 73; I Boss (Leinster) for Murray 79; P Jackson (Ulster) for O’Driscoll, 79.
Referee C Joubert (South Africa).
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