It had been six months to the very day since England last played at Twickenham, in a World Cup warm-up against Ireland, and that was a handsome victory too, even prettier than this one. Since then, they’ve been halfway around the world and back again, one step away from the top of it, too, when they lost to South Africa in the final.
They’ve clocked up a lot of miles, a fair few wins and those two telling defeats, the one in Yokohama and the other in Paris, since. And now they were back. In more ways than one, since they were playing something like the way they did last autumn when they won those two matches against Australia and New Zealand.
Hell, but they’re an ugly, awkward team to play against when they’re in this mood, with the power to beat you on the inside, and the speed to beat you on the outside, and the wit to switch quickly between the two ways when they want to. For the first time this Six Nations, England’s fans got to see a little of what this ornery, outsize lot are capable of at their best. They softened Ireland up, and then sliced them apart. “Constant” was the word Owen Farrell used afterwards to describe the way his team had played in the first half. And he’s right, there’s a relentlessness to their style which means the opposition isn’t allowed as much as a spare second to gather their breath.
And you could see that in the mistakes Ireland made, the split-second hesitations deep in their own territory that led to England’s first two tries. Johnny Sexton spent most of the opening quarter playing toreador to Manu Tuilagi, who kept just coming, running right at him, by him, over him. Sexton must be thoroughly sick of the sight of Tuilagi. He’s played against Ireland five times in his career now, and England have won every one of them. Here he was again, sucking in tacklers like some black hole, one, two, three at a time until finally they all came down in a tumble of limbs. Tuilagi, on the other hand, seldom needs any help making his hits and he flattened CJ Stander.
It’s not just Tuilagi, of course. The minute you bring him down there’s Courtney Lawes following up after, and Kyle Sinckler, and Maro Itoje, George Kruis, Tom Curry and the rest of them, hard-chargers, and coming fast, the lot of them. It’s a thankless job for the opposition. In all the confusion when England switched it up and Ben Youngs whipped in a wicked little grubber kick through the Irish defence, Sexton flapped at the bouncing ball behind his own tryline and George Ford whipped round him to touch down the rebound. It was the first in a string of uncharacteristic mistakes by the Irish fly-half, usually such a cool hand. It felt like England had got to him.
The second try was similar. It was Jacob Stockdale this time; lingering for a moment as he watched Ford’s chip bounce in front of him, he left just enough time for Elliot Daly to squeeze past him and slap the ball down with one outstretched hand. It was another piece of scrambled thinking by the Irish. Daly, back at full-back, seemed happier there than he had been on the wing. Certainly it was his best game in a while. His score made it 14-0, and from there, whatever anyone said, you could tell there was no way back into it for the Irish. It was impressive, from a team who were under some pressure, too, after one loss and one narrow win in the opening fortnight.
There is more to come from them. Eddie Jones and Farrell both said so themselves. “It was another step up,” Jones said. “We’re fitter and we’re able to play with more intensity.” He promised they’ll be 10% better again when they play Wales in two weeks.
“There’s a lot left in us,” Farrell agreed. Ireland had much the better of the final 15 minutes, when England should have been pressing for the fourth try that would have won them a bonus point. So Jones’s substitutions did not have the sort of impact he would have liked. And the decision to bring on Charlie Ewels to pack down at No 8 once Lawes had gone off was an especially odd one.
But then, it seems like Jones knows best. On paper it looks like his team are full of square pegs in round holes, with Joseph, a centre, playing on the wing, and Lawes, a second row, on the flank, and Curry, a flanker, at No 8.
Well, they all worked well enough against Ireland. Joseph made one superb break down the wing, beating two men, and Curry followed it up with another. It still feels like he is out of his best position, it’s just that he is a good enough player to get away with it. And then there was Lawes, who has never seemed a natural fit in that position but was the man of the match for all his conspicuous carries, tackles and takes at the lineout.
It may come too late to help them win this Six Nations, since France have the advantage after beating them on that first weekend, but there’s no doubt England are back running in the right direction again.