By Brendan Cole
Poor discipline and an attacking game that never got out of second gear saw Ireland fall to a disappointing 12-6 defeat in their RBS 6 Nations clash with England at the Aviva Stadium.
Opportunity had opened up for both these sides after a thrilling first weekend of rugby in this championship which saw Ireland beat Wales and pre-tournament favourites France fall to defeat against Italy.
But ultimately, this match followed the pattern of week two, a dour and unsatisifying contest in which the tryline was rarely threatened and errors rather than good play led to most of the scores.
Four penalties from Owen Farrell ultimately gave England victory while Ireland could only reply with two penalties of their own from Ronan O'Gara.
In a cagey first half, Ireland made a barely believable number of mistakes in both attack and defence.
Unfortunately, captain Jamie Heaslip led the way, dropping a pair of routine kicks and conceding penalties which Farrell slotted at the beginning and end of the half to give England the lead.
Ireland’s miserable first half was compounded by the loss of Jonathan Sexton to a leg muscle injury after 30 minutes.
There had been some positives. Ireland played most of the better rugby in the first half and routinely engineered visits to the English 22. A brilliant tackle by Craig Gilroy to snuff out an English counter, a couple of superb turnovers by Sean O’Brien, and some eye-catching dashes by Keith Earls, who replaced the injured Simon Zebo on the wing after just ten minutes, gave the crowd something to cheer about.
Ireland looked like taking control early in the second half, with powerful scrummaging and a bizarre piece of indiscipline by James Haskell giving Ireland two chances which O’Gara converted confidently to bring the scores back to level.
But England slowly reasserted themselves. To their credit, their ability to contest the breakdown was far superior to that of Wales and robbed the Irish attack of the tempo it apparently needs to threaten. And while their backline never gelled, Farrell’s probing kicks were a constant thorn and created the situations from which England forced Ireland to concede kickable penalties. In contrast, loose kicking from Ireland had regularly reduced the pressure on England. O’Gara’s introduction did little to stem that trend.
At 6-6, Ireland’s attack lost focus and the nerves even afflicted Brian O’Driscoll, who dropped a ball on his own 22 and was saved from embarrassment only by a knock forward from replacement centre Manu Tuilagi.
O’Drisoll looked like he would be forced off with an ankle problem soon after, but despite solidering on he was not a factor for the rest of the game.
An endgame ensued which was eerily similar to the flat finish against South Africa in November.
Despite introducing a host of replacements, England had to do very little on the creative front for their win.
Their one attack of note came when a beautifully weighted Farrell kick forced Rob Kearney to give up a lineout five metres from the Irish line.
From another lovely chip, this time by Ben Youngs, the ball danced through Tuilagi’s fingertips in the Irish in-goal area, but it just evaded the big centre and Ireland avoided shipping the try.
But England had a penalty from the maul and Farrell again made no mistake to reclaim the lead.
And Ireland immediately conceded again when a poor kick by O’Gara allowed Mike Brown to put Kearney under pressure with a high kick. A brilliant tackle by Courtney Lawes saw the Irish full-back hang onto the ball on the ground and concede yet another penalty.
Farell again put the chance over with conviction and despite having being down to 14, England were back in control.
Ireland got a break with referee Jerome Garces giving a penalty for obstruction at what looked a routine maul in the Irish half. From the subsequent lineout drive, Dylan Hartley entered the Irish maul illegally.
With ten minutes to go, captain Heaslip instructed O'Gara to kick for goal, but this time, the outhalf was unable to get the score from what was probably his easiest chance.
Six behind and in a championship that is all about wins, should the captain have backed the powerful Irish maul and gone for the corner?
Shortly after, England forced another holding on call, but Farrell was just wide.
Not for the first time, he kicked to a chorus of whistles on a poor day for the tradition of silence being afforded to the visiting kicker.
Ireland still had a glimmer of a chance, in theory at least, but they were unable to manufacture anything dangerous with O’Gara and Ross combining to knock the ball on and a Geoff Parling lineout-steal snuffing out any hope.
For Ireland, the optimism of the Wales performance slipped away just as quickly as it arrived. Six Nations 2013 already goes down as a missed opportunity and while this flat performance will soon be forgotten by the wider rugby world, you sense it will rankle for much longer for this squad.
Ireland had the tools to win against a competent, but fairly limited England and it is they who now have an excellent opportunity to win a Six Nations Grand Slam.
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Ireland: Kearney; Gilroy, O'Driscoll, D'Arcy, Zebo; Sexton, Murray; Healy, Best, Ross, McCarthy, Ryan, O'Mahony, O'Brien, Heaslip.
Replacements: Earls for Zebo (10), O'Gara for Sexton (31), S Cronin for Healy (74), Kilcoyne for Best (74), Fitzgerald for Ross (78), Henry for Ryan (66), O'Callaghan for O'Brien (65).
Not Used: Reddan.
England: Goode; Ashton, Barritt, Twelvetrees, Brown; Farrell, B Youngs, Marler, T Youngs, Cole, Launchbury, Parling, Haskell, Robshaw, Wood, Lawes.
Replacements: Tuilagi for Twelvetrees (47), Hartley for T. Youngs (50), Wilson for Cole (76), Lawes for Launchbury (47), Waldrom for Lawes (71).
Not Used: Vunipola, Care, Flood.
Sin Bin: Haskell (56).
Ref: Jerome Garces (France).