Ireland scored five tries to convincingly beat England in their World Cup warm-up game in Dublin.
Vunipola red card adds to England woes
With Owen Farrell’s World Cup participation already in doubt, England head coach Steve Borthwick faces further disciplinary-based disruptions this week following Billy Vunipola’s red card against Ireland.
Farrell’s Saracens team-mate Vunipola was initially shown yellow for his high tackle on Andrew Porter in the second half, but it was upgraded to red following a review.
Borthwick, who would not comment specifically on the Vunipola incident, now faces a critical week in his preparations with the prospect of losing two key players for a portion of England’s pool matches certain to dominate the build-up to Saturday’s Test against Fiji at Twickenham.
With Vunipola the only specialist number eight in the England squad, a potential six-game ban would create a serious headache for Borthwick and his coaching staff.
“Hopefully we will find a conclusion on both matters this week and it won’t go into another week. Once I have all the facts, I will deal with them,” said Borthwick.
“We talked about the way this Test week was disrupted [by the Farrell saga] and I need to adapt throughout the week. It’s another challenge that’s been thrown at us.”
Stars align for centurion Earls
The most memorable moment of the game from an Irish perspective was unquestionably the ear-splitting roar produced by the crowd when Keith Earls crashed over in the corner to rubber-stamp Ireland’s win and mark his 100th cap in style.
It was as loud as the Aviva has been all year, and with Ireland having clinched the Grand Slam on home soil in March, that’s really saying something.
Earls, who has been on the Ireland scene for 15 years and is hoping to appear at a fourth World Cup, offered a thrilling reminder of what he offers out wide at the end of a game that featured tries from Ireland’s first-choice wings Mack Hansen and James Lowe.
A hugely popular member of the squad, Munster stalwart Earls, 35, became the ninth Irish centurion on Saturday and provided Ireland with the perfect World Cup send-off when he took Bundee Aki’s pass in his stride and raised the Aviva roof with his 36th international try.
“Obviously the story of the day is it’s very fitting that Keith gets his 100th cap and we made sure he does that with a W, and also him scoring a try in Keith Earls style in the corner just made the day for everyone really,” said Farrell.
Ireland still have much more to give
Saturday was a stark illustration of where Ireland and England find themselves three weeks out from the World Cup.
For Ireland, Farrell’s near-four-year reign has been building up to this point.
There has been much experimentation and a few bumps along the way, but everything we have seen in the past 12 months suggests this Ireland side are capable of breaking new ground on the biggest stage in France.
Like all great teams, Farrell’s Ireland have mastered the art of squeezing wins out of performances that fall well short of their maximum.
Saturday was another example of that. With 15 changes from the Italy game, Ireland looked rusty and disjointed, especially in the first half.
And just as he did after the win over Italy, Farrell used the word ‘clunky’ in his assessment of the performance. But as England toiled, those in green found a way to score five tries and record their 12th straight Test win stretching back to last year’s tour of New Zealand.
They continue to tick off victories, but it is clear from Farrell’s post-match comments that he feels his Ireland machine still have so much more to give before they reach the heights of, say, their Six Nations victory over France or last summer’s Test series triumph over the All Blacks.
“It had a bit of everything: good, bad and ugly,” Farrell said of his side’s display.
“I wasn’t too happy at half-time. We had them in a place where we could push a little bit harder and make it a little bit easier for ourselves but we didn’t kick on.
“I was really pleased that we found or rhythm back into the game. I thought we scored some great tries.”
Borthwick faces unenviable task of reversing England fortunes
As for England, who are less than a year into the Borthwick era, rather than revive confidence in their World Cup prospects after a disappointing Six Nations campaign, these warm-up games have instead heightened the suspicion that further heartache awaits them in France.
Discipline is obviously a hot topic, but England were often slow and predictable in Dublin, with George Ford – who made his first start since 2021 as Farrell’s replacement at fly-half – failing to grasp a golden opportunity to build on his match-winning cameo off the bench against Wales last week.
England have now lost four of their last five matches, conceding 20 tries in the process and scoring just five. The road ahead appears bleak, but Borthwick is clearly not in the mood to dish out any damning verdicts of his player’s efforts just yet.
“Whilst I’m incredibly disappointed with the result, the players kept fighting,” he said.
“I thought the players that came off the bench added on the pitch.
“Just before half-time at 7-3, we missed some opportunities and turned over ball in the final third, so we weren’t able to put enough pressure on them.
“When it was 15 against 15 it was a tight battle, unfortunately it didn’t stay 15 on 15.”
With Fiji to come to Twickenham on Saturday, Borthwick faces the unenviable task of rejuvenating his squad before launching their World Cup bid against Argentina on 9 September.
Farrell awaits Sheehan update as selection looms
This was, of course, Ireland’s last run-out at home before jetting off to France, where Farrell will unveil his 33-man squad on 28 August.
Farrell cut five players from his panel early this week and said he was “close” to finalising his 33 following the win over England.
Ireland have had some minor injury concerns recently, but while Farrell said Jack Conan, Ronan Kelleher and Dave Kilcoyne will “definitely” be fit for the World Cup, he does not yet know the full extent of Dan Sheehan’s injury after the Leinster hooker injured his foot against England.
With Sheehan having enjoyed an outstanding last 12 months for club and country and Kelleher short of match sharpness, an injury to the former would be a worrying development before facing Romania in their Pool B opener on 9 September.