Ireland clinch Six Nations Grand Slam as 14-man England overwhelmed in Dublin
Ireland staged the real holiday parade with a 29-16 win over 14-man England to seal their maiden Grand Slam in Dublin.
The Irish capital’s streets were awash with the customary St Patrick’s Day floats on Friday, but the Aviva Stadium played host to the real procession a day later.
Captain Johnny Sexton led Ireland to their fourth competition clean sweep, and their first on home soil since the 1948 triumph in Belfast.
Freddie Steward’s red card on the stroke of half-time undoubtedly eased Ireland’s passage, on a day when the jitters caught hold early and were not dismissed until the hour mark.
Ryan Baird’s monster turnover on Ellis Genge set in motion the chain of events for Robbie Henshaw to power home and seal the second Grand Slam in five years.
Hooker Dan Sheehan claimed two tries, his replacement Rob Herring got in on the act too, and Sexton wound up with 12 points – for an all-time Six Nations record of 569.
And that is where his Six Nations haul will stay given his impending retirement after the World Cup. The 37-year-old still seems at the peak of his powers in Andy Farrell’s masterful set-up.
St Patrick found his niche as the enlightener of Ireland, but in Farrell and Sexton, the nation’s Test team have finally found their cultured, educated edge.
England’s darkness lifted somewhat from last weekend’s France nadir, but still their attack needs a Damascene moment to allow Steve Borthwick’s side to hit Ireland’s heights. England actually ended the match with 13 men, with Jack Willis’ yellow card.
Borthwick’s men certainly restored pride and integrity in the England shirt following last weekend’s 53-10 record home defeat by France. But the Red Rose are simply not at world No1 Ireland’s level.
Head coach Farrell has stood on the shoulders of predecessor Joe Schmidt, adding stardust to industry and ingenuity without losing rigour and discipline. Ireland have so often peaked between World Cups, but this group have soaked up all the pressure of this Grand Slam game and still delivered despite the nerves.
Delivering in such circumstances will only boost Irish confidence in moving past their World Cup quarter-final psychological barrier for the first time in the autumn.
For England, plenty remains possible. But right now, even a par performance at the World Cup still feels a tall order. England defended with zeal and attacked with purpose from the top of the day, especially in contrast to last weekend’s France debacle.
The improvements were not enough to crack Ireland’s defensive code however, and a 15-phase attack petered out for a penalty. Owen Farrell slotted the three points but England sorely needed a try at that point to stand any chance of a shock win.
An unusually tense Ireland had spent the first quarter botching visits to England’s 22, four in fact. Andy Farrell’s men probably made more mistakes in the opposition 22 in the first 20 minutes here than at any other point in the tournament.
England eventually cracked however, and through a string of cheap penalties that allowed the hosts to power up the field. When hooker Sheehan blasted through the middle of England’s defence after a lineout, the Aviva bellowed its relief and elation.
When full-back Steward was sent off for his tangle with opposite number Hugo Keenan, the whole ground dropped to a hush. An air of confusion clung to the crisp air, as the Irish wanted to celebrate their numerical advantage and England were almost too nonplussed to vent any anger at the decision.
The laws of head contacts leading to red cards still allow for rugby incidents, or in other words contact that can hardly be avoided. Steward’s upper arm connected with Keenan’s head, as the Ireland full-back stooped to grab a loose ball.
The Leicester star appeared to have done what he could to minimise the contact in what little time he had to readjust. Referee Jaco Peyper and his assistants disagreed however, and Steward was given his marching orders.
James Lowe made a clear effort to console Steward as he left the field, in a move that ultimately spoke volumes on his view of the incident. Keenan failed his Head Injury Assessment (HIA) meanwhile, so did not return for the second half.
Ireland would have expected to warm to their task after the break, but still the jitters persisted. England even cut the lead to one point, at 10-9 as Farrell posted his third goal after the visitors won a scrum penalty.
But when Henshaw stormed home just past the hour, off the back of that Baird turnover, Ireland were in full glory march. Sheehan raced in for his second try just minutes later to add another seal to the triumph, and by now the crowd were well and truly into party mode.
England refused to relent however, and a blistering maul yielded a try to remember for Saracens hooker Jamie George. Willis’ yellow card for upending Ross Byrne hampered England again, with Herring stretching for the line for Ireland’s fourth try to seal the victory.
Ireland will move on seamlessly towards a World Cup of hope and expectation. For England, the search for personality and identity continues.