Ireland gave head coach Joe Schmidt and captain Rory Best the perfect farewell at the Aviva Stadium with a confidence-boosting 19-10 win over Wales on Saturday.
Both men will relinquish their respective roles after the Rugby World Cup and they toasted their final match in Dublin by steering Ireland to the top of World Rugby’s rankings for the first time.
The home side though were left to sweat a possible knee injury for wing Keith Earls, amid a solid victory where Rob Kearney, Tadhg Furlong and James Ryan all bagged tries.
Rhys Patchell’s third concussion in a year, meanwhile, handed Wales a big World Cup injury scare.
Here’s the key talking points from Dublin:
Another improved display for the Men in Green.
They showed lots of energy and intricacy around the ball carrier, and stepped up their performance levels again after last week’s 22-17 win over the same opposition.
Schmidt’s side demonstrated some positive and fast back line play, slick passing, strong defence (they missed only eight of their 115 tackles), good kicking variety and ran good angles to make it difficult for Wales to stop them getting over the gain line.
They built phases, produced some strong carries from CJ Stander, Robbie Henshaw and Ryan, and looked back to their fluid best in attack.
There were doubts creeping into this team about their form in recent weeks, but they look to have timed it right. It wasn’t a perfect display by any means – with the lineout still creaking – but certainly a lot better than previous weeks.
It was controlled and clinical, and one that sets them up nicely ahead of their World Cup opener against Scotland on September 22.
WALES TIRE OUT
While simple rugby worked well for Ireland, Wales – after a promising start – were unable to gain a foothold for large parts of the contest.
Despite producing some productive moments in attack and defence in the first half, Wales couldn’t convert their possession and territory into points.
Hadleigh Parkes steamed through for their only try of the game on 31 minutes and at that point the visitors looked full of confidence.
But some uncharacteristic weak defending and poor decision making in attack saw Wales struggle.
Ireland were methodical and picked the right options, starved Wales of possession and that is psychologically very tiring for any defence, especially for one that is generally flawless over the ball.
One of the positives for Warren Gatland when he dissects the video over the coming days was the accuracy of the set-piece. From the lineout, Wales won all eight of their throws, and from the scrum they won all three.
Wales looked fatigued as the game wore on and, coupled with a number of poor refereeing decisions, lacked that cutting edge that saw them soar to Six Nations success earlier this year.
For Gatland, it’s all about the performance of their four warm-up matches over the results and he will study the games endlessly to have his team primed and firing for Georgia in 16 days time. In a World Cup year, the only thing that matters is the World Cup itself.
Ryan may only be in his third year in professional rugby but Ireland play so much better when the 23-year-old is on the field.
Kearney produced a majestic display and would have been the name pursed on most people’s lips for man-of-the-match, but Ryan shone brightest at the Aviva Stadium, setting the tone for his team in defence and at the breakdown.
The Leinster man scored a try, made 10 carries and 10 tackles and was always looking to get involved at any opportunity.
He continuously purrs with confidence and is a future Ireland captain in the making.
The argument can be made that he is potentially Ireland’s most important player already.
England coach Eddie Jones has revealed that he will be without both Mako Vunipola and Jack Nowell for at least the first two games of the Rugby World Cup.
Speaking after his side completed preparations with a 37-0 win over Italy at St James’s Park, Jones confirmed the extent of injuries which will continue to sideline the pair.
Vunipola aggravated a hamstring injury when he made a brief return against Ireland late last month, while Nowell has been making good progress from a serious ankle injury.
Jones said: “We feel that he (Vunipola) will be right possibly for game three or four.
“Jack in the last couple of days has taken off and we’ve had to hold him back, but he should be right again around the same time as Mako.
“He (Vunipola) is a very important player and we are very confident that he will make a very important contribution for us.”
Jones hailed England’s hunger for success after they turned a nine-point half-time lead into an emphatic victory over the Italians.
Despite surrendering possession in a sluggish opening spell, Jones made a series of replacements and saw his side belatedly flourish.
Referring to last week’s Italian training camp, Jones said: “We looked like we were still eating pasta and pizza in Treviso in the first half, but we got that out of our system.
“I thought in the second half we were a lot more purposeful. We made a number of changes that we planned to, we tried a few different combinations and we were very pleased with that.”
Of more relief to Jones will have been a relatively clean bill of health, with only Joe Launchbury causing a degree of concern with a back injury which Jones described as “not too serious”.
Jones singled out Ben Youngs for a man-of-the-match display, adding: “Ben has had a really good training week – it’s been the best that I’ve seen him train.
“His speed with the ball, his passing and his accuracy were good, so he is really coming into good form in time for the World Cup.”
Italy coach Conor O’Shea said he was baffled by the size of England’s victory after watching his side dominate possession for much of the first half.
O’Shea said: “It is difficult for the boys to take. We had execution issues in terms of not getting the scores, but there were so many good things out there.
“Sometimes in life you get strange results and that’s what I feel at the moment. There’s a lot of good stuff that we can carry forward, but I think any team that beats England are going to win the World Cup.”
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Eddie Jones refused to get too excited when England chalked up their 24th win from his first 25 matches in charge in February 2018 and did not press the panic button when they lost five successive matches either just nine months later.
It is therefore no surprise to see the Red Rose’s continuous rise from beating the Springboks, Japan and Australia in November, and then suffering a one-point defeat to world champions New Zealand.
A second-place finish in the Six Nations is no mean feat either, especially given they played the most attractive brand of rugby throughout the competition. And, as the saying goes, in a World Cup year, the only thing that matters is the World Cup itself.
But if the recent warm-up matches are anything to go by then Jones has the team peaking like a set of experienced mountaineers inching towards the top of Mount Everest.
The Australian’s record speaks for itself too, with 33 wins, one draw and nine defeats from his 43 matches in charge to date. If his reign was to end tomorrow, his 77 per cent win success rate is the best record for any England head coach.
Their sizzling 57-15 victory over Ireland two weeks ago was seriously impressive, with Manu Tuilagi, Maro Itoje, Kyle Sincker, George Ford and Tom Curry all showcasing their world class abilities.
With France and Argentina struggling for form, England’s World Cup group is starting to look less challenging and, on the back of six straight wins over the Wallabies, two against South Africa and a narrow loss to the All Blacks that could have been a victory, they should travel to Japan fearing nobody.
Their half-backs are excellent, they have a mammoth pack that are capable of bullying even the most industrious of opposition, and they have a back line sprinkled with glittering talent.
Fly-half Ford didn’t put a step wrong during the warm-up matches, but captain Owen Farrell is likely to orchestrate proceedings from number 10 in Japan, with Ben Youngs occupying the scrum-half shirt.
At centre, Tuilagi’s powerful display against Ireland and the creative excellence of Henry Slade suggest it is worth Jones testing out this midfield combination in the first pool match, which will be a tough test against Argentina. Slade’s cleverly weighed kicks and Tuilagi’s brute force would provide England with a strong blend at centre.
Out wide, Elliot Daly will start at full-back with the dynamic duo of Jonny May and Anthony Watson using their pace and quality footwork to trouble opposition tacklers. Daly may be questionable under the high ball but he is tidy at the back and potent going forward.
The only undoing for the England backs is they all have a mistake in their armory, except for a flawless Farrell, and that could cost them in the latter stages of the competition.
Mako Vunipola, Jamie George and Sinckler is the starting front row bar any late injuries. If the influential Vunipola has not recovered from a hamstring issue then Joe Marler will wear the number one shirt.
Itoje and George Kruis operate a faultless lineout, and the thought of coming up against this duo will be alarming for most teams, such is their sheer athleticism and voracious work-rate around the paddock.
One of the most dangerous combinations is the back row, and the balance the Red Rose have been able to strike with Curry and Sam Underhill at six and seven is immense.
The scary thing about Curry (21) and Underhill (23) is that they have an extra 20 per cent in the tank against elite opposition. And if Jones opts against starting Underhill, then there is an equally tenacious figure in Mark Wilson.
At number eight, Billy Vunipola is one of the best players in the world, with his fearless ball-carrying, tackling and ability to give England go-forward ball key to their World Cup chances.
It’s the back row England fans have craved since the days of Neil Back, Lawrence Dallaglio and Richard Hill back in 2003. And one which will be difficult to break down if Jones’ men are to come up against the All Blacks in the semi-finals.
If England perform to the same level they did against Ireland back in February or even the way they did two weeks ago in Twickenham against the same opposition, they’re capable of beating any team in the world.
They are a force to be reckoned with and, if all goes their way, may even be leaving Japan with the Webb Ellis Trophy.
Nickname: Red Rose
Union: Rugby Football Union
Head coach: Eddie Jones
Captain: Owen Farrell
Most caps: Jason Leonard (114)
Top scorer: Jonny Wilkinson (1,179)
Top try scorer: Rory Underwood (49)
Home stadium: Twickenham
Best finish: Winners (2003)
Fixtures: Tonga (September 22), United States (September 26), Argentina (October 5), France (October 12)