United in victory
Ireland's Grand Slam hopes came crashing to a halt in the driving Dublin rain as a powerful England side out-fought and out-thought them in a gritty encounter. It wasn't pretty and there wasn't much in the way of attacking rugby, but this win adds serious weight to the idea that this is an England team on the rise.
Last week we saw what they could do in dry conditions against lesser opposition at home. This week they proved their smarts as they mastered difficult conditions and kept a dangerous Irish side contained to secure a major scalp away from home.
For years Irish fans prayed for rain on game-day to help bring visiting teams down to their level, but when they woke on Sunday morning and looked out their windows the dark, wet day would've left them glum. The wet weather played into England's hand's with their big, powerful pack and intelligent kicking game.
And while to say the weather was the only reason England won would be an insult to this team, it certainly helped.
Ireland made a mistake with the very first call of the game, deferring the opening kick-off to England which they kicked deep into Irish territory. This immediately put Ireland on the back-foot and soon English forwards were carrying the ball into contact in the Irish half. Instead of looking for the offload, they sought to hit the deck early avoiding knock-ons and the dreaded Irish choke tackle.
Eventually this English pressure combined with Irish indiscipline gave Owen Farrell a kick at goal before Ireland had the chance to knock him around a bit and get under his skin.
Despite the set-back, Ireland seemed the more dangerous side with ball-in-hand and sought to play themselves back into the game. But in a sign of things to come, every time they got in a decent position, handling errors and silly penalties allowed England to clear the danger. Too often they tried to be too elaborate on a day that called for patience. This poor game management would prove to be the difference between the sides on the day.
England played the conditions and the referee more intelligently than an experienced Irish side.
They gave away more penalties, but did so at the right times and rarely in their own half. They gave Ireland space out wide but only in positions from which they offered little threat, and put pressure on the inside backs making it difficult for them to spread the ball wide.
The Irish were further hindered by loss of exciting winger Simon Zebo and influential fly-half Jonny Sexton early in the game, but were given cause for hope when Farrell pushed a kick wide late in the first half, leaving them just six points behind.
This seemed to galvanise the Irish side, who came flying from the blocks in the second half, winning two penalties to draw level and seeing England go down to 14 men after the sin-binning of James Haskell.
Lesser sides would've crumbled under the pressure but this England side is made of sterner stuff. Sensing the shift in momentum, Stuart Lancaster rung the changes. He unleashed some of his heavy hitters off the bench, sending Courtney Lawes, Manu Tuilagi and Dylan Hartley on to re-energise the English effort.
Again they went back to the basics, forcing Ireland to play the game in the their own half and putting huge pressure on them at every opportunity. Up against Ronan O'Gara, the master of such conditions, Farrell gave a masterclass in the territorial game. This huge pressure gave England their only try-scoring chance of the day. Poor Irish play gave them a line-out five metres out and Tuilagi raced onto a perfectly weighted Farrell kick. Only intelligent defence from Keith Earls saved the Irish from further hurt.
Despite failing to cross the whitewash this spell of territorial dominance did award England with two kicks at goal, both of which Farrell took to give them a 12-6 lead. When Haskell returned to the fray England had weathered the Irish storm and outscored them 6-3 in the 10-minute spell.
Ireland continued to try force a score that would get them back into the game but never got close. They met a brick wall in defence and England's kicking game was first-class, constantly sending Ireland deep into their 22 to start all over again.
While it wasn't one for the spectator, this game provided huge insight into where this English side are at. They still have much to prove in an attacking sense but their defence is world-class. They apply pressure in all the right places, and have excellent players covering in behind if their line is broken.
Their kicking game is also superb, with Alex Goode giving a masterclass at full-back. His positioning was excellent and he constantly turned the Irish back-three by forcing the ball in behind them. He was aided by an excellent kick chase which forced Ireland into hurried kicks or mistakes. They won all the kicking duels and Goode's excellence meant Ireland were never in English territory long enough to impose themselves.
Their pack are secure in both the line-out and scrums, and are blessed with great athleticism in the back five. They were making tackles all over the field and secured fast ball for Ben Youngs, while also putting huge pressure on the Irish rucks.
But what stood out for me was the intelligence and maturity of the side. They had a game plan that suited the conditions perfectly and they stuck to it superbly.when the chips were down. They pushed the referee early and adapted once they learned what he would and wouldn't tolerate at the breakdown. Much was made in the buildup of their inexperience at this level but it was they who looked the more experienced side out there on the day.
It wasn't a groundbreaking win and this side are far from the complete article. But the blocks are there to build on and this side is growing in confidence with every game. They now have two weeks to recover and prepare to welcome the embattled French to fortress Twickenham.
For Ireland it's another lost opportunity and it's back to the drawing board for Declan Kidney. He will have to gauge how he stands with the IRFU regarding his contract as they may travel to Scotland minus a few key players. Zebo is already ruled out, Sexton is a major doubt and Cian Healy may have seen his last action in this Six Nations.
If Kidney's job is on the line he may have to go with the tried and tested. If not it may be time to give some of the next generation a go, helping speed up the rebuilding process before the 2015 World Cup.