Elliot Daly tackles Keith Earls during England's win over Ireland

Credit: Getty Images

‘Infectious’ was the buzzword around Twickenham on Saturday night – and it had nothing to do with Covid-19 transmission rate. Instead it was all to do with England’s suffocating defence which broke Ireland’s spirit and a fair few bodies along the way.

Collectively, England made 246 tackles against Ireland, missing just nine. Among the starting pack, no one made fewer than 16 tackles and of all the English forwards Joe Launchbury missed just a solitary tackle when Jamison Gibson-Park slipped through his grasp at the end of the first half. Ireland did not generate a single ruck speed of under three seconds.

Yet the statistics only illustrate part of the story. What they cannot demonstrate was how the England’s intensity did not diminish for a single minute. Of how full back Elliot Daly printed 40 metres to smash Keith Earls on a 75th-minute restart. Or the riotous celebrations from Maro Itoje’s snaky hips to an Ellis Genge roar that carried all the way to Richmond that accompanied every turnover. 

“If you can weather the most a team has to throw at you and if you can get the ball back in what could be a really good attacking opportunity for them then it is as good a result as scoring,” said Sam Underhill, the flanker who set the tone for most the afternoon. “I think individual efforts help to inspire and help to motivate and give energy to the lads. Ultimately it is a collective energy and it has to be infectious.”

Yesterday’s try was no fluke ⚡ We spoke to @J0nnyMay in 2018 about his relentless need for speed and his daily habits in pursuit of excellence 👇 pic.twitter.com/2rNp9RPugS

— England Rugby (@EnglandRugby) November 22, 2020

Itoje was also at the vanguard of England’s resistance and seemed to make it his mission to make James Ryan’s afternoon a living hell whether pinching his lineouts or smashing him back in the tackle time after time. Billy Vunipola and Tom Curry also got the better of their opposite numbers and Lions rivals. 

Yet as prop Kyle Sinckler was keen to point out it was not just a pack effort. “It’s all well and good saying stuff, it’s all about the action,” Sinckler said. “Today you saw from 1-23 everyone really putting their body on the line. I even saw (replacement scrum half) Dan Robson trying to get in amongst it. I had a little chuckle to myself. He tried to tackle James Ryan up top and he got sat down! The intent was there.

“It’s just infectious and that is where we want to take our game. One of the pleasing things today was we didn’t wait. We didn’t wait for Billy to make a big carry or Maro to get a big turnover of tackle or Underhill or Curry to get a turnover. It was literally from the minute go, we just wanted it. We were just buzzing to be out there.”

Some teams can suffer an identity crisis after losing a match such as the World Cup final. England have quickly found theirs again within a dominant defence and set piece, which was more or less the Springboks’ winning playbook.

🎥 HIGHLIGHTS | England v Ireland 🤩

Catching up or watching again, you don’t want to miss these! Just ask @J0nnyMay 😉.

Our second Quilter International of 2020. Catch all the @autumnnations action on @primevideosport. #QuilterInternational #ENGvIRE #AutumnNationsCup pic.twitter.com/mlCfzmE2zT

— England Rugby (@EnglandRugby) November 22, 2020

Many teams across different sports have made inverted the traditional axiom that attack is the best form of defence. Tottenham Hotspur head coach Jose Mourinho continues to prosper off the back foot. Just as in the NFL, great defences received their own moniker such as Pittsburgh’s Steel Curtain, Minnesota’s Purple People Eaters and Seattle’s Legion of Boom so one Irish pundit christened England’s defence an “angry brick wall”. 

It was not quite impervious as Billy Burns’ chip for Jacob Stockdale’s try showed. Plenty of limitations also remain for England’s attack which yielded tries for Jonny May off a ‘free play’ from a penalty advantage and a turnover.

However, defence has become England’s defining attribute, which is largely because defence coach John Mitchell handed over the responsibility to the players. “Most of our defence meetings are led by players,” head coach Eddie Jones said. “Almost 100 per cent. They own it and you can see how much enjoyment they get out of it.”

Underhill praised Mitchell’s enthusiasm and emotional intelligence. Mitchell must now be considered the front runner for Lions defence coach. Even if it lacks something in aesthetic quality, Underhill will make no apology for prioritising the ends over the means. “I think we are increasingly seeing the importance of aggressive defences, not just hitting people for the sake of hitting people but putting pressure on teams ultimately to get the ball back.”