St Patrick’s Festival is not usually associated with party wrecking, but the cavorting stopped the minute England began their quest for a record 19th win and back-to-back Grand Slams. To imagine such a feat on Dublin soil was anathema to Ireland, so they embarked on an 80-minute war against joy. They were magnificent in that mission.
England’s run from 10 October 2015 to 18 March 2017 encompassed 18 wins, with four against Australia and three against Wales, with a Grand Slam along the way. But now they must settle for the title of Grand Slam champions - a regression, after last year, but hardly a surprising one, given the epic nature of Ireland’s performance.
From a Uruguay game to this maelstrom in Ireland, from a sad World Cup farewell in Manchester to this dust-up in Dublin, England have improved immensely. This test, however, was a step too far, and shows the work still to be done. They now sit tied with New Zealand on 18 consecutive wins and Eddie Jones, their coach, has experienced his first defeat in his adopted country.
A week after the stand-out performance of this championship - the 61-21 evisceration of Scotland - Jones’ men found themselves at the other end of the spectrum: not in control, not comfortable, not tactically assured or adept. It all ended with a Mike Brown knock-on and a 13-9 Ireland victory that added a whole new thrust to St Patrick’s weekend.
The desperate flooding-on of replacements around the hour mark was an attempt by Jones to rip the whole thing up and start again. An historic day for English rugby swung in the wind, with an England side who had forgotten how to lose frantically seeking a return to the rhythms and confidence of a week ago. The skies opened up to drench those hopes. An England line-out ball snatched by Peter O’Mahony, who was immense, sent the home crowd into raptures.
In truth, there had been no obvious confidence among Ireland’s fans in the hours before kick-off. Yet the word from the Irish camp was that preparations had gone smoothly, despite injury concerns. England’s last Six Nations defeat was in this fixture two years ago, when Ireland won 19-9 - coincidentally, the margin of superiority for Irish-trained horses over British ones at this week's Cheltenham Festival.
The first-half was an ordeal for England: a tempest. At 10-3, The Fields of Athenry rolled round the wave-shaped Aviva Stadium as the crowd picked up on the nerviness of the visitors and their own team’s determination to halt England’s growing domination of northern hemisphere rugby. There was a strong sense that the intensity of the game was taking more out of Ireland than it was England: hope there, for Jones, who has seen his 23-man collective close out games with impressive power and resolve. Yet the men in green never wilted, and were unfazed by England’s fabled bench of finishers.
Ireland were playing at a level that has been beyond them for much of this Six Nations Championship, which has achieved the notable feat of burying the memory of last year’s often sterile fare. How did one of the worst Six Nations in memory (2016) take flight to give us this year’s thrilling pageant?
However that came to pass, the old winter warmer reached its climax beautifully, with a bizarre 100-minute marathon between France and Wales that delayed this Dublin kick-off, and then a clash that affirmed the Six Nations’ gift for unpredictability. It was never likely to be straightforward. England had recorded two wins in eight visits to this city. In 2001, and again in 2011, they were turned back on the cusp of a Grand Slam.
Ireland lost their No 8, Jamie Heaslip, in the warm-up and their captain, Rory Best, after nine minutes, but regained him nine minutes later after treatment: a measure, you could say of how desperate every Ireland player was to stop Dublin being turned into a green Twickenham. Conor Murray, their first choice scrum-half, was already on the sidelines, and Mario Itoje, the ‘find’ of this England generation, seemed keen for Johnny Sexton to join Murray in the stands when tackling him late, at shoulder height, 20 minutes into the game. It was a relatively clean late hit, if that makes sense, which might explain the referee’s reluctance to punish him.
At half-time Ireland were running at 74 per cent possession and 76 per cent territory - testament to their intensity, forward pressure and speed at the breakdown. By then an Iain Henderson try and Sexton conversion had given Ireland a 10-3 lead. At the 40-minute whistle, Ireland ran off the pitch. England paused to contemplate the dizzying events of that first-half and then jogged off at a much slower place.
However good England are - or are becoming - no team can be expected to confront such zeal and simply squash it. The 2003 Grand Slam here started with a thunderous demonstration by Martin Johnson's side. Their superiority was obvious from the off. But once Ireland made their intentions clear, England were into another game altogether: a containment exercise, in which the hope was that Ireland would tire and the England “finishers” would come to the rescue, as they so often have.
As the lights were dimmed, England received their Six Nations winners’ medals and looked borderline glum, but then cheered up a bit. A moment of history had eluded them. Grand Slam hopes were buried in Dublin - again. A world record (18 wins) is shared - not owned. Ireland simply said: not today, not here.