2nd December 2020

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Command and control: Brutal England show Ireland that defence is the best form of attack

England put on a defensive masterclass to beat Ireland as Jonny May (left) scored a superb try

This was an epic, heroic defensive masterpiece. England’s leading hit-men described it as ‘infectious’ and the performance was reminiscent of the historic triumph over the All Blacks last year.

What a way to treat one of the leading rugby nations. On Saturday at Twickenham, the hosts had Ireland tucked in their pockets for the best part of 80 minutes.

Dangerous rivals were reduced to cannon fodder in what was so nearly a lock-out — until Andy Farrell’s well-beaten side snatched a try six minutes from the end.

England put on a defensive masterclass to beat Ireland as Jonny May (left) scored a superb try

England put on a defensive masterclass to beat Ireland and the intensity was superb

England put on a defensive masterclass to beat Ireland and the intensity was superb

The visitors were bullied into submission. Ignore the scoreline; it wasn’t even close. The result was in no doubt from the moment Jonny May left the Irish defence choking on his vapour trail to score a stunning, long-range solo try in the 21st minute to double his match tally.

Ireland had plenty of possession, but England kept them at arm’s length with a torrent of tackles. There were many hallmarks of the World Cup semi-final win last October. Then, England scored an early try, went into half-time 10-0 up and, despite a second-half try, maintained control without pulling clear.

This time, it was 12-0 at half-time, but the overall process and sense of supremacy was similar.

After routine, tedious victories over Italy and Georgia, this was a demonstration of dominance to ignite England’s Autumn Nations Cup campaign and reinforce the balance of power between these two countries. 

The Irish found themselves coming up against a brick wall time and time again

The Irish found themselves coming up against a brick wall time and time again 

While Jones is seeking to rebuild the staples of England’s game, Farrell Snr is trying to rebuild the Ireland team and it is going to be challenging.

One of the staples for Jones is defence and it has rarely been so commanding. There was a magnificent, backs-to-the-wall success against Australia in Melbourne in 2016, but that was a rearguard action. This was different. It was a showcase of defence as a potent weapon. It was brutal and utterly compelling.

Maro Itoje led the tackle-count and the front-rowers, Mako Vunipola, Jamie George and Kyle Sinckler delivered thunderous contributions across the field.

The back-row trio set the tone. Billy Vunipola gave his best performance since the World Cup while Jones’s ‘Kamikaze Kids’ —Tom Curry and Sam Underhill — were relentless in knocking back Irish carriers and competing for the ball at rucks.

Between them, the three men made 74 tackles and, remarkably, didn’t miss a single one.

Billy Vunipola (centre left) gave his best performance in an England shirt since the World Cup

Billy Vunipola (centre left) gave his best performance in an England shirt since the World Cup

‘It’s definitely unusual not to miss a few,’ said Underhill.

‘It was an outstanding effort. It was always going to be a physical contest and our defence was always going to be a part of that. Everyone in the team contributed, especially the forwards.’

Underhill praised England’s Kiwi defence coach John Mitchell — who also acts as a mentor to the back-rowers — for being an ‘emotionally intelligent guy’ who lets the players take responsibility for how they plan and manage that key aspect of their game.

Explaining the mindset they adopt, he said: ‘It is predominantly a work-hard-for-each-other attitude and hit people hard. It allows lads to go and get people, and to try to get the ball back, which is obviously the aim of defence.

‘We are increasingly seeing the importance of aggressive defences, not just hitting people for the sake of hitting people, but putting pressure on teams ultimately to get the ball back.’

Asked if defensive graft and success is infectious, as it seemed to be here, he added: ‘Yeah, 100 per cent. By its nature, it is a collective effort. It is about collective energy and it has to be infectious because you have to put as much if not more energy into it than they are.

‘Today it was infectious and any player will tell you a good defence is energising. What’s brilliant is that you know you have got guys who are going forward, putting their bodies on the line, making good shots and making good reads. It fills you with a certain sense of confidence.’

England were imperious without quite managing to reflect that supremacy with a fitting tally of points after May’s early tries. Having fine-tuned their kicking game, set-piece and maul during this autumn campaign, it was as if they were ticking another box by stress-testing their defence.

Sam Underhill praised his side's defensive performance and described it as 'infectious'

Sam Underhill praised his side’s defensive performance and described it as ‘infectious’

Sam Underhill praised his side's defensive performance and described it as 'infectious'

Sam Underhill praised his side’s defensive performance and described it as ‘infectious’

Underhill played down any sense that it was a premeditated policy, saying: ‘Some days you have the ball a lot, some days you don’t. Today was one of those days where we didn’t.

‘Our way into the game was ultimately by defending well. Ireland kept the ball for a long period of time, they kept it well and they did not give up at any point, so it was a real test for us.

‘I would not necessarily say you are better off without the ball but it doesn’t hurt when you have a defensive performance like that.’

It truly was a masterpiece of its kind and an absorbing sight. Jones can take comfort from the fact his team have classic English rugby DNA, just as he had hoped.


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