England Under-20s got hopes of a historic English Grand Slam treble off to the perfect start by securing their first clean sweep since 2011 with a display of such character that it should act as an inspiration for Eddie Jones’s senior side against Ireland at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday.
The Under-20s, just like Jones’s men, went into the contest with the Six Nations title already in the bag after four bonus-point wins, yet the final hurdle proved the most testing and of greatest substance.
The Ireland side may not be of the same vintage that reached the World Rugby Under-20s Championship final last year when they lost to England in Manchester, but they managed to take the champions right to the wire, with the final whistle yielding emotions of elation and relief in equal measure.
If the game had begun with it looking as if England would be able to use their clear physical advantage up front to power to a comfortable victory, it ended in the most dramatic of fashions, with a series of ferocious Ireland drives ending over the English try-line.
Yet it was the England players who jumped for joy when the whistle blew as the ball had not been grounded and there was no time for another Irish attack.
It had been a courageous performance by Ireland, whose own Championship hopes had been ended by defeat to Wales, yet England are worthy champions and with several of the senior management team in attendance, it seems only a matter of time before some of this talent breaks through into Jones’s squad.
The English eight, many of whom have considerable Premiership club experience including their inspirational captain Zach Mercer, make for a formidable unit and at times Ireland struggled to cope with their power.
It was no surprise then that it was England who landed the first blow, when Saracens lock Jack Nay forced his way over for the opening try in the 16th minute. Yet Ireland possess some quality attacking threats of their own, including Gavin Mullin, the son of former Ireland and Lions centre Brendan Mullin, and Jordan Larmour, the Leinster full-back.
Caelan Doris, the Leinster No 8, was also a willing and effective carrier up front and Ireland were able to reduce the early deficit when he was tripped in a tackle by Tom Curry, the Sale Sharks flanker. Bill Johnston landed the penalty but England still found time to extend their lead when hooker Henry Walker went over for a try in first-half injury time, with Max Malins adding his second conversion.
Yet even though the conditions deteriorated, the driving rain did little to hamper Ireland’s attacking vigour, and Larmour, who has trained with the senior Ireland side, continued to ask questions of the England defence, with one move involving Tommy O’Brien and Mullin almost leading to a try.
England knew they were effectively just one score away from closing the contest out and Malins was denied a try after running over from 80 metres out following an intercepted pass due to an early penalty.
The momentum was with Ireland, however. A critical tackle by Max Wright on Johnston forced a knock-on just when it looked like Calvin Nash had a run to the line.
The drama intensified when Gavin Coombes was driven over for a 65th-minute try to bring the Irish side to within a score of the lead. Ireland’s resurgence continued, but England’s defence ultimately held firm.