It was a baking day at the England HQ this Saturday and England delivered a suitably red-hot performance to match. Despite Ireland taking an early and brief lead, it ended 57-15 – a record victory for England over Ireland – featuring eight tries from the hosts, who refused to take their foot of the gas until the final whistle.
It is difficult to make out exactly what this victory means in the grand scheme of things. These are warm up friendlies and Ireland had only had a run out against Italy in preparation. Joe Schmidt described them as ‘heavy-legged’ in the post-match press conference, but rustier than the tin man in a monsoon might be a fairer description. They fell off an astounding 38 tackles over the course of the game, posting just a 67% success rating.
If Ireland were poor, England were imperious. Once again, their power game came to the fore. Manu Tuilagi was moved to his more natural home at 13, Joe Cokanasiga was devastating on the wing, while the likes of Maro Itoje and Jamie George carried tirelessly up front. Their set piece was solid as a rock and also frequently stole Ireland lineout ball. England’s back five beat 25 defenders between them.
Manu burst onto the scene eight years ago in the 2011 World Cup warm up game against Ireland. As he deservedly picked up his man-of-the-match award, it is to wonder how England’s fortunes might have differed had he been fit regularly over that period. It is also to be thankful he seems to be firing just in time for this World Cup, and to be excited at just how good he can be when Jones described him as operating at ‘only 80%’ of his potential.
Two sets of twins also excelled. The fly-half pivots of George Ford and Owen Farrell exploited the space brilliantly and offered variety in attack. Henry Slade, so impressive during the Six Nations, now faces a tough fight to reclaim his place. While, in the back row, the ‘Kamikaze twins’ of Sam Underhill and Tom Curry were a constant nuisance and showed plenty of pace – Underhill in particular tore after kicks like a terrier and nullified the Irish counter – linking well for a try.
Although it was great to watch, it is also a higher-risk selection and gameplan than in the past. Elliot Daly may be sharp in attack but is still a bit suspect defensively compared to the rock-steady Mike Brown. Those concerns – he was easily rounded by Bundee Aki for Ireland’s consolation try – refuse to go away, despite the life he sparks into England’s counter attack. That said, it is worth remembering just how loudly we were calling for this kind of exciting attacking runner at the back when we had the safer but arguably limited Brown in the side. And the last time Anthony Watson started at 15 for England, they were beaten 24-15 at home by Ireland in the 2018 Six Nations. But then the grass is always greener.
Similarly, Cokanasiga on wing is electrifying going forward – his second try, burning four Irish defenders on his way to the line was world class – but defensively raw; Manu looks more potent at 13 with the extra yard of space, but also then has more spacer to cover in defence.
WOW @J_cokanasiga ??
— England Rugby (@EnglandRugby) August 24, 2019
For the thrills of Underhill and Curry, will we miss the hard-fought experience of the likes of Chris Robshaw and (soon to be MMA fighter. Seriously) James Haskell in Japan when things get tight and cagey? It will be interesting to see this line up against a less insipid team than the Irish that turned up on Saturday.
The reason for this buzzkill attitude is England have recently shown their ability to flip between brilliant one minute and lacklustre the next on a number of occasions. They were fantastic against Wales in the opening warm up game, a ‘B’ team taking the grand slam champions apart at Twickenham, before a ponderous performance in Cardiff, surrendering with nary a shot fired.
In the Six Nations, England were stunning against Ireland in Dublin and France at home. They were then well beaten in Cardiff by Wales. The Scotland game had both sides in respective halves, a game as bizarre and frustrating as it was thrilling for the neutral.
England are in in danger of becoming a Jekyll and Hyde team, capable of delighting and horrifying in equal measure. A bit like England’s cricket team, when the players fire on all cylinders, it is a joy to watch. When they are a little bit off, for whatever reason, it can be a spectacular implosion.
Twickenham is also an increasingly influential factor in this disparity. England may have only lost two of their 24 tests at the fortress under Eddie Jones, but have lost six of their last nine away games. This needs to change if they are to win a World Cup.
To do that, they need to win a minimum of six out of seven games. The only scope for a slip up is in the group stages; reach the knockout stages and three wins in a row against top teams are needed. All of this on neutral ground.
England are clearly aware of this, Billy Vunipola acknowledging, ‘I would like to see that performance away from home … going to Japan and doing it away from all our fans and the comforts of our home changing room.’
And despite their strong win against Ireland, in the press conference, encouragingly neither Jones and Farrell were getting carried away, Farrell describing it understatedly as ‘a step in the right direction’.
It certainly was a step in the right direction. A huge stride in the right direction. What England now need to do is kick the habit of shuffling backwards straight afterwards. If they can add the consistency to their flashes of brilliance, they will be a real force in Japan.
By Henry Ker