Emerald flytrap shuts on England once again in Six Nations | Robert Kitson

Robert Kitson at the Aviva Stadium
The Guardian
<span class="element-image__caption">Ireland celebrate their 13-9 victory over England in the Six Nations.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile via Getty Images</span>
Ireland celebrate their 13-9 victory over England in the Six Nations. Photograph: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile via Getty Images

Say what you like about Ireland’s rugby men but they keep everyone guessing. This season they have been up and down more often than an addicted bungee jumper, mixing huge adrenaline rushes with regular descents back to square one. Since the joy and incredulity of Soldier Field in Chicago last November, they have been short of comparable highlights – until now. Beating the English in Dublin will never lose its appeal.

For good measure the Irish can now toast victories over both the old enemy and New Zealand, the top two sides in the world, inside four months. If ever there was a St Patrick’s weekend that positively demanded one further celebratory pint, this was it.

A surprise? Perhaps not so much. This was the sixth time in their last seven Six Nations visits across the Irish Sea that England have fallen into the emerald flytrap. Ireland’s defeat in Cardiff had left them unable to win the title but it had failed to douse their spirit.

Whether it was the dreaded prospect of mid-table anonymity or simply the extra incentive of a looming Lions tour, this was another extraordinary, super-charged show of defiance, almost fit to sit alongside the All Black triumph in terms of intense satisfaction. Nor will the final weekend of the tournament result in the two-year-long hangover threatening when Wales led France in Paris. When the pool draw for the next Rugby World Cup takes place in Japan in May, the Irish will now find themselves safely in the top tier of seeds, safe from bumping into New Zealand or England until the latter stages.

The early signs were a long way from auspicious. Jamie Heaslip, such a reliable totem, pulled out in the warm-up, with CJ Stander moving to No8 and Peter O’Mahony coming into the back row.

The dependable O’Mahony is a good man to have around in a crisis but it merely added to the sense of Irish uncertainty. Initially, too, Jared Payne could not catch a cold at full-back, the ball seeming to grow mysteriously greasier in his vicinity.

Joe Schmidt, though, is no rookie coach. He had clearly looked at England and wondered what might be possible if his forwards took them on up the guts, forced Billy Vunipola on to the back foot and generally unplugged their power supply at source. No one has tried mauling England backwards and suddenly the reason for the inclusion of Iain Henderson ahead of the green beanstalk Devin Toner became clear.

The Ulsterman is precisely the strong, energetic, busy presence a side needs if it intends to keep the ball infield for lengthy periods. Nor did Ireland look remotely like a hastily reshuffled unit when O’Mahony, later named man of the match, soared high at the back of the lineout and Henderson surged out of the middle of a ruck to stretch over: 10-3 does not sound much of a half-time lead but in the circumstances it felt a slippery slope back for England.

It could have been worse had Ireland taken all their chances. With advantage being played they simply had to score down the right, with Payne and Keith Earls in acres of space and the cover scattered. Instead Payne’s pass out of the tackle was lobbed and the ball was prised from Earls’s grasp as he drove for the line. It has been Ireland’s achilles heel throughout the tournament: not finishing what they had started.

Goalkicking has not been such a problem; Johnny Sexton’s conversion and two penalties continued the impressive strike rate of himself and Paddy Jackson to 22 successful kicks from 23 attempts in the championship. Nor could England make headway at the scrums; increasingly there were green roadblocks everywhere.

It made for a fascinating test of England’s mettle, not to mention Eddie Jones’s powers of alchemy. As the game entered its decisive phase the noise started to make even Cardiff feel like a reading library. The visitors have been banging on about their finishers all years; here was the chance to prove their worth for all time. It was not to be on this occasion, as the home replacements mounted their own bid for sporting immortality and their fans reacted to the final whistle as if they, not England, were this year’s real champions.

This Irish rugby winter has featured the most tragic of lows in the form of Anthony Foley’s untimely passing but it has also yielded the most intoxicating of highs.

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