Ireland suffered burn-out in the warm-up. They faded in the heat as England scored a record number of points in the fixture and exceeded by two their previous highest winning margin. It was only 10 months ago that the Irish, having beaten New Zealand for the second time in two years, were being heralded as Europe’s leading contenders in the World Cup, but now they cannot assume topping a group that includes the hosts and Scotland.
England were close to full strength for the first time this month and their formation showed the selectorial flux of the previous 18 months. There were only six starters from Ireland’s previous visit here, at the end of the 2018 Six Nations, and none of the three backs who remained was starting in the same position, including Owen Farrell who that day had been redeployed at fly-half following straight defeats.
England have been unfavourably compared to the team that won the 2003 World Cup but what other side in Japan will measure up to them? Even New Zealand have a whiff of vulnerability, a team that looks suspect in some positions and short of cover in others. There is no exemplar in a tournament that will be about seizing the moment and England look as equipped as anyone.
They have Maro Itoje, a second-row with the instinct of a New Zealand forward whose try four minutes into the second period, picking up on Ireland’s 22 and stepping between two props before accelerating, showed how his game is evolving. He started by forcing a turnover and tracked the ball as if by radar, the epicentre of England’s effort. And there was Manu Tuilagi, back at 13 whose threat is the same with or without the ball, a magnet for defenders.
England led 22-10 at half-time. Their three tries came on the right wing with Tuilagi involved each time. The first, scored by Joe Cokanasiga from a scrum in Ireland’s 22, was the result of Tuilagi being used as a decoy. He sucked in three tacklers to leave the home side’s right wing unguarded which Elliot Daly exploited with a long pass.
Jacob Stockdale had been drawn infield by Tuilagi as the left-wing was for the other two tries. It was Tuilagi’s burst that set up the second with Daly this time the beneficiary after Itoje, Billy Vunipola and Kyle Sinckler had softened up a defence that in the opening period missed nearly one-quarter of its first-up tackles. Tuilagi helped himself to the third as Stockdale again planted himself in a defensive no-man’s land.
Stockdale had created Ireland’s try which gave them the lead after eight minutes following Farrell’s early penalty. The wing’s kick to the line bounced awkwardly for Tuilagi and Jordan Larmour followed up to score, but under pressure up front and unusually wasteful in the lineout, Ireland buckled as England were both unrelentingly physical and adept at creating space.
England have replicated the likely heat in Japan in training and here, with the temperature in the 80s, they were able to play at a sustained pace. The decision to resuscitate the midfield axis of George Ford and Farrell gave England the breath of continuity, complementing the two open-side flankers in the back row, Tom Curry and Sam Underhill, who combined for England’s sixth try on 56 minutes that underlined the difference between the sides.
Ireland are most comfortable dictating the pace of a game by dominating possession. They were without the injured Jonathan Sexton and Conor Murray sat out the second half but no part of their game functioned smoothly. They won the grand slam on their last visit here but since defeating New Zealand last autumn and being heralded as Europe’s most likely in the World Cup, they have been soundly beaten by England at home and Wales away.
Eddie Jones has long anticipated that pace and width will be requirements in Japan, but not at the expense of the set-pieces. Ireland started with a few off-loads but they lacked even a semblance of control. Their afternoon was summed up at the end when they had a lineout five metres from their own line. They had lost four of their previous throws and they did again as Itoje squeezed in the middle. Sean Cronin went long and the ball landed in the arms of Luke Cowan-Dickie, who earlier this month had accepted a similar opportunity here against Wales.
Bundee Aki had four minutes before providing Ireland with the scantest of consolation, creating space for himself before evading Daly’s tackle on the right wing, but England had by then reached the half-century of points against Ireland for only the second time. Tuilagi was again used as a midfield decoy, creating space for Cokanasiga who came off the right wing into midfield and was found by Farrell.
The one concern for England was Mako Vunipola’s failure to last the course when he replaced Joe Marler on the hour. The prop, making his first appearance since suffering a hamstring injury in the Champions Cup final last May, lasted 16 minutes.But Ireland’s problems were considerably greater.