A visiting side full of burly, bruising bullies showed they have the game to beat the best with their win in Ireland
So this is England. Three years in, this felt like the first good look at the side Eddie Jones has been dreaming about, the one he had always imagined he would pick when everybody was fit, the one he’s been whipping and hounding his players in training for, the one that, he believes, can win the World Cup for him later this year. They are an ugly bunch, nasty, brutish and sharp, a pack of burly bullies with a couple of whippet‑quick sidekicks making mischief around the fringes. They have the strength to beat you one way, the speed to beat you the other, and they will be hell for everyone except their own fans.
The air was still thick with the last lingering firework smoke when England scored their first, a champagne cork start from a team who have spent the last week brewing up under heavy pressure in their camp in Portugal, thinking about nothing other than proving themselves here in Dublin. It started with a move they must have come up with in training there. Manu Tuilagi was ambling around the midfield when all of a sudden he snapped into life and charged on to the end of the long lineout throw from Jamie George. It was a cunning little ruse and Ireland were caught short.
Tuilagi, in the starting XV for the first time since 2014 under Stuart Lancaster, felt like the missing piece of the jigsaw Jones had finally found underneath the sofa cushions. He is a talismanic player, a rock for all those fast‑running backs to flow around. Jones has picked 17 men in the centre since he took on the England job but he is only now able to start Tuilagi, the one you suspect he has always wanted to have there. The little-and-large centre pairing with Henry Slade is one Jones will stick with. “That’s just the start for him,” Jones said afterwards.
Tuilagi began the play but it was Billy Vunipola who made it when he carried the ball on into midfield. The home fans roared when he was stopped dead by Bundee Aki’s tackle but they were celebrating too early. Vunipola braced himself, rolled around through 180 degrees and popped the ball back to Ben Youngs. From there it was two fast, flat passes out to Elliot Daly on the wing. He drew Robbie Henshaw into the tackle, then fed the ball along to Jonny May, who had a clear run in. And that was the Jones formula in short: power and pace and precision.
Of course, it wasn’t all so slick and smooth as that move. England played some rough stuff in the rest of the half, when it felt as if there was a danger their indiscipline would undo them. Tom Curry clattered Keith Earls with a late, high hit and was shown a yellow card. Earls received another dose of the same soon afterwards, when Maro Itoje hit him in mid‑air underneath a high ball. And Johnny Sexton was collared with a couple of late tackles, too. It felt as if England were playing right on the edge, just as New Zealand did when they beat Ireland here in 2016. Joe Schmidt made that same comparison after the match.
“We got man-handled a little bit,” said Schmidt. “It’s not too dissimilar to the All Blacks here a couple of years ago when we got beaten up and we got beaten up again today.”
At half-time, England were 17-10 up, a good omen. The last five times Ireland had lost, they had been behind at half-time. And the flipside of that particular statistic is that they had been behind at half-time only five times in that run, too, losing every one. Five duly became six. Even after Sexton cut the gap down to four points with a penalty, and even though Owen Farrell blew the chance to stretch it back to seven again when he missed one of his own, it always felt as though England were holding on to control.
Ireland simply did not have the strength in them to wrest back the match. England just kept pouring it on, more power, more power, more power. After 50 minutes, they brought on Courtney Lawes, after 55, Nathan Hughes. It was a knockout one-two. And in the end Slade cut loose and the match finished up being the one thing no one had predicted: an English rout.
This was it, then, the signature performance England needed, a statement of intent at the start of the World Cup year. It was their first match of 2019 and it will likely be the most important they play till the last comes around, sometime, someplace, in Japan in the autumn. Because it was proof England have a game that can beat the best team in Europe on their home turf, something even New Zealand failed to do the last time they tried. And if England can do that, then they, and everyone else, will know they can do plenty else, too. “We’re a team that’s still growing,” Jones said. “We’re nowhere near our best.”