SIR CLIVE WOODWARD: England proved me wrong with a strong disciplined representation in Ireland’s victory
My predictions from Six Nations had gone reasonably well until the start time in Twickenham – I was eight out of eight – but I had this error.
I expected a scorching dogfight against an Ireland team with their tail up and nothing to lose and I even felt that the Irish would overshadow it with a point or two. I was worried about some of the selections in England and was nervous about the result.
But what particularly occurred in the first half was an incredibly strong and disciplined performance in England against an Irish party who simply could not find a way to participate in the competition. It was absolutely excellent.
England produced a dogged and disciplined screen against an Irish party that was struggling
England played the boss from start to finish and delivered excellent team performance
That was entirely due to the excellence of England, their stifling defense, their power that led and their dominance in the set-piece.
They also decided early on to confront Ireland with their own air play, which is generally regarded as an Irish strength – those early recordings of Jonny May and Elliot Daly were great moments. England was in the business.
England was in charge of the game from start to finish and in the end the only disappointment might not have been able to score a fourth attempt for a bonus point. The championship is clearly to be lost in France, but if they slipped, England could still drive through the blindside. There is still a lot of rugby to play.
Not that a try bonus would go wrong would detract from an excellent performance. I don’t know of any English supporters who would not have settled for that before the game.
There were concerns about some of the selections in England before the match started
England was fully dialed in, just as they were against New Zealand in the World Cup semi-final and – an even better comparison in my opinion – their 32-20 win over Ireland in Dublin a year ago, which I place there.
On that occasion at the Aviva, the physicality that went forward from Manu Tuilagi and Billy Vunipola set the tone, on Sunday it was Manu again and Courtney Lawes played blindside flanker.
What England did that day was to get out of the blocks and keep the pace going that they replicated in Twickenham. They built up the pressure from the start and although you can point to lax defense for the first two attempts of England, Ireland was clambering and clambering down two broken stairs and that is when the odd bounce of the ball defends a defense can make.
It was a tough field yesterday, despite all the wet weather – actually an end of the season field – and such attempts will probably always come if you put the ball in the right place.
Ireland, on the other hand, was simply not mentally in the first half and I cannot give an explanation other than what sometimes happens. Rugby is often an art more than a science, if it were that last one, you could come up with the answers every time.
Courtney Lawes may be a good example. Like many others, I would not have chosen him on a blindside flanker. I didn’t think he had gone well there in the past, while always looking like a world-class castle, but he responded to the criticism of the selection – not him personally – with a beautiful all-round performance.
Lawes rightly earned the man from the competition prize to celebrate his 31st birthday, although I would say that Maro Itoje would have walked him pretty close.
Courtney Lawes responded to criticism of his selection with a beautiful all-round display
Itoje was very good against Scotland two weeks ago and made a huge contribution yesterday, not least in his aggressive defense that helped pressure Ireland.
What I also liked was the evidence of his growing maturity. When Ellis Genge, one of my favorite English tyros from England, got involved with a few verbal words, it was Itoje – himself a pretty fiery character – who carefully removed him from every possible glow. Itoje has his head on the line and when he is so focused, he is always excellent.
Many others went really well. Tuilagi nowadays has to manage his damaged body, but he can still have a huge impact. Although he was selected outside the center, England used him a lot as a 12 to transport him in his inimitable way or to use him as a dummy.
George Ford celebrates this after scoring the opening attempt during the England victory in Six Nations
England was in a good headspace and I can only say well done to Eddie Jones for holding on to his weapons. He knew the team he wanted and he was determined not to be distracted by the noise around his selections. If you win a large test competition, your selections are always correct!
So it goes further and further. As Eddie said after the game, more is coming this way and the view of Wales running out of Twickenham in two weeks may lighten the touch paper. That should be an intriguing clash to enjoy England’s turn now, while Wales will look straight at the ship after two defeats on the jump.
LES BLEUS ARE LONGER BACK
For anyone who loves the Six Nations and wants to see European Rugby as strong as possible, France’s victory in Cardiff was an important moment, possibly the start of something special.
I have no doubt that France will be able to win RWC2023 that they will host, but first they have to bury the memories of almost a decade of largely bad rugby and bad experiences. Their victory over Wales at the Principality Stadium was the start of that process.
Did you see the young team dancing and jigging with pleasure and then signing their song in the dressing room? It was all via Twitter. This is the time when teams start to believe and believe they can take on the world.
The victory did not come easily, although it was thoroughly earned for me. The Grand Slam is certainly not theirs yet. Scotland will give them a lot to think, as will Ireland in the final round. They can easily lose one of those games and that would all be part of the process, but I think we can safely say that the real France is back.
The championship is likely to go to France, but there is work to be done to win the Grand Slam