England’s ambition is to match New Zealand and here they managed it, losing to Ireland as they chased a record 19th consecutive Test victory for a tier one nation as the All Blacks did five months before. The champions also forfeited the opportunity to become the first team to achieve back-to-back grand slams in the Six Nations era, their hopes dampened by the Dublin drizzle as the home side clinched second place with frenzied control.
England were hustled and hounded into errors, as discomfited as the side that was here two years ago, the men in white’s previous defeat in the Six Nations: their first attack ended when Mike Brown knocked on and when their final one ended in the same matter, the crowd responded as if it were Rory Best rather than Dylan Hartley about to be presented with the championship trophy. In the final reckoning, the title was decided in Cardiff: the only away victory in the matches involving the top five sides in the table was England’s against Wales, and that came late.
This was a match typical of a Six Nations campaign that has seen little separate the first five in the table. England’s ability to create delivered them the title with a round to spare, but here they were overwhelmed at the breakdown when they were not prevented from going to ground and choke-tackled and denied both quick ball and space. Unable to get a territorial toehold, they floundered in midfield and for once their finishers were true non-starters.
Ireland did to England what Wales had done to them the previous round, reacting to an unexpected and big defeat with sustained fury. The visitors had the motivation of breaking New Zealand’s record and recording back-to-back grand slams, but the Six Nations trophy was waiting to be collected and from the start they were fractionally slower to react than their hosts: on the rare occasions that space opened up, it was quickly closed down by a host of green shirts.
Andrew Conway came off the bench at the start of the second half to win his first cap after Keith Earls suffered a leg injury and no one passed by him. His resolution summed up Ireland who were nursed by Jonathan Sexton, the subject of close attention by England: he has become used to dusting himself down after late tackles. The more that England singled him out – Maro Itoje and Owen Farrell would have received yellow cards for their challenges on him had a referee less tolerant than Jérôme Garcès been in charge – the more his influence grew.
Sexton was playing without his injured half-back partner Conor Murray, a loss that some home supporters feared would be fatal for their side’s hopes, but Kieran Marmion teased England with his box-kicks, as did his replacement Luke McGrath. Once Ireland pulled ahead with the second-row Iain Henderson’s 23rd-minute try after Best had opted to kick a penalty to touch at 3-3, they adroitly played the territory game.
England lost their composure rather than their nerve, making unforced errors and conceding penalties under pressure. They were within a try of victory with 15 minutes to go, as they had been in Cardiff, but this time the home side was not for cracking and Ireland did not just hold on for a merited victory, but finished well on top.
It was a very European affair, uncompromising with big hits abounding. It held little relevance ahead of the Lions tour to New Zealand, although the way England’s set piece was de-powered and picked apart will have concerned the tourists’ management.
Itoje was given the responsibility of calling the lineouts for the first time and England lost two key throws while their scrum was under enough pressure in the opening period for Mako Vunipola to be summoned from the bench at the start of the second half.
Ireland had lost their No8 Jamie Heaslip to a hamstring injury at the end of their warm-up. Peter O’Mahony moved from the bench to start at blindside flanker with CJ Stander moving to the back of the scrum, but the change was more providential than disruptive with O’Mahony’s greater ability on the floor more valuable than Heaslip’s carrying.
England have perhaps got away under Eddie Jones with a back row that is not the most balanced. Here, Billy Vunipola, after some early thumping tackles, looked short of match sharpness, Itoje at times looked like a second-row playing out of position and James Haskell was overwhelmed, mobbed every time he touched the ball and rarely making it over the gainline.
Lacking quick possession, Ben Youngs and George Ford were unable to influence the game beyond putting in relieving kicks, Farrell was peripheral and Jonathan Joseph touched the ball four times before being replaced. That was twice as much as Anthony Watson, who dropped one of his two passes as Ireland – as they had against New Zealand in Chicago – worked out that the best way to counter creative opponents was to sabotage the supply line. It was to England’s credit that they were always in the game, always an interception away from victory, but it always looked beyond them.
It was another match in the Six Nations unremitting in its ferocity and while the commitment and sacrifice of players is admirable, where is the skill? Best’s reverse pass to Earls early on was a moment out of keeping with the general attrition and the only player who found space was the Ireland centre Garry Ringrose whose frame is not yet that of a gainline basher.
Will he in the coming year spend more time in the gym than working on his skills? The rugby served up here has become the norm in Europe, but it should be the exception.
The Lions will need the latter in New Zealand, but it has been a Six Nations when sides have not backed up performances but tended to react to disappointment. England were an exception, but it was only against Scotland that they ran free. Here they were behind on 10 minutes when Sexton kicked a penalty and level through Farrell for three before Henderson scored what turned out to be a decisive try.
It was 10-3 at the interval. England rallied in the third quarter. Farrell kicked his second penalty, but Sexton replied from 45 metres against the run of play and although Farrell made it 13-9 in the 66th minute, the champions were running on empty.
The match was summed up by Haskell, getting ever more desperate trying to find a way through but being wrapped up by Sexton and conceding a scrum.
Unlike 2011 when England missed out on the grand slam here, there were no frowns at the trophy presentation. Coming first and second at the same time is confusing emotionally, but they are worthy champions who will be central to the Lions’ hopes in a few months’ time in New Zealand.
Ireland Payne; Earls (Conway ht), Ringrose, Henshaw, Zebo; Sexton, Marmion (L McGrath 69); J McGrath (Healy 59), Best (capt; Scannell 73), Furlong, D Ryan (Toner 64), Henderson, Stander, O’Brien (Leavy 67), Heaslip Try Henderson Con Sexton Pens Sexton 2
England Brown; Watson, Joseph (Nowell 67), Farrell, Daly; Ford (Te’o 62-70), Youngs (Care 64); Marler (M Vunipola ht), Hartley (capt; George 55), Cole (Sinckler 77), Launchbury, Lawes, Itoje, Haskell (Wood 59), B Vunipola (Hughes 62) Pens Farrell 3
Referee Jérôme Garcès (Fr)
Attendance 51,000 Game rating 6/10