An Irish uprising to rank with the best, full of fierceness and fury, was enough to do for England’s Grand Slam and their history-making hopes.
England were hounded into submission, the rage of the written-off emerald-clad warriors disrupting all the best-laid plans of Eddie Jones.
There was venom in every Irish tackle, potency in every attack and desire in all that they did. England were not going to be garlanded on Ireland’s watch. The St Patrick’s festivities had barely ended before they sprang uproariously back into life again. As Saturday ebbed into Sunday the party showed no signs of finishing. It had been a wild, tumultuous, madcap day.
This was the real Ireland, the side that had also stopped the All Blacks on their 18-match winning streak, and it hurt England, hurt them deeply. What a hollow feeling it was as they were presented with the RBS Six Nations trophy, victors yet vanquished. This memory will live long with both sides.
Ireland have salvaged their own season, runners-up in the tournament while England have had a horrible reality check. They are champions but it will not feel that way. They were on the podium yet heart-broken. The only Englishman with a smile on his face was Andy Farrell, the Ireland defence coach and architect of an unbreakable green wall.
England could not argue with the outcome, their first defeat under Jones. They were bested in almost every department, also-rans in so many phases with flanker Peter O’Mahony, a late call-up five minutes before kick-off when Jamie Heaslip pulled a hamstring, epitomising all that was valiant and defiant in Ireland’s game. England had no answers and simply could not find a way out of the stranglehold. They barely managed an attack of any note.
This is a set-back for England but not a disaster. In truth, this sort of defeat has been a long time coming. England have done wonderfully to roll back the stone, rising from the dead on several occasions, but this time they were well and truly buried. Their record run of 18 successive victories had been impressive but not imperious. The loss will ensure that they review all elements of their game. Their line-out was shaky, their scrum intermittently unstable. There is work to be done there. Maro Itoje was calling the line-outs and was under the cosh. Billy Vunipola looked short of a gallop. Without a sound forward platform, the playmakers, George Ford and Owen Farrell, were unable to put any shape on the game.
There had been a subdued air in Dublin but it was wholly deceptive. Even though there had been none of the partisan tub-thumping that is the usual prelude to this fixture, it had all been plotted to that end behind closed doors. The Ireland head coach, Joe Schmidt, is not a rabble-rouser. He frightens with his intellect. This was a team that was totally on-script. The pack was tight-knit and productive while the centres, Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose, combined deftly in attack. Scrum-half Kieran Marmion, the bench man behind Conor Murray, was busy, busy, busy.
Like so many, he stepped up to the mark. And hooker Rory Best led from the front, even indulging in one lovely behind-the-back pass. Best was at the heart of his team’s uplifting effort, all energy and commitment.
Johnny Sexton has invariably been a man for the moment. No matter how many times England tried to knock him out of his stride, and he was roughed up time and again, Sexton came back for more. Best was irked by the treatment being dished out to his key man and expressed his concerns to the referee, Jérôme Garcès.
There was no mistaking Ireland’s intent. They thundered into the contest and might well have stolen an early march only for Keith Earls to lose the ball when thumped as he went for the line by a double-hit from Mike Brown and Ben Youngs.
That ought to have set alarm bells ringing for England. The Irish dander was well and truly up. This was not a team accepting that it was below par.
Tight, resolute and driven, Ireland were determined to go out on their shield, if lose at all. They made all the running, spurning a pot at goal in the 23rd minute for a line-out in the England 22. O’Mahony rose at the tail, his mates swarmed around him and drove, hard and true. Lock Iain Henderson, a surprise selection, stretched through and the try was awarded, Sexton converting.
It was no more than Ireland deserved, given that they finished with a clear advantage in possession (61 per cent) and territory (64 per cent).
O’Mahony made full use of his late call to the colours. The Munster captain epitomises raw-boned effort and set the tone, adding immensely to Ireland’s line-out options. O’Mahony took a steal of the opposition ball in the 70th minute that was telling, with England threatening. It summed up his performance, a prodigious effort.
England tried to get more dynamism into their game by replacing Joe Marler with Mako Vunipola at the break but still the errors persisted, wing Anthony Watson dropping an easy enough take. They badly needed some succour and they got it when Farrell landed a long-range penalty kick in the 50th minute to reduce the half-time deficit to 10-6.
But still England could not shake themselves free of the Irish grip, Sexton doing as Farrell had done when converting a penalty from about the same 45-metre range.
England sent on their reinforcements. By the time Farrell slotted another penalty in the 67th minute, seven of their self-styled ‘finishers’ had been deployed. Ben Te’o did not last long, taking a nasty bang to the head.
It was so tense, so tight, so taut. Four points between the teams, ten minutes to go, so much on the line.
O’Mahony’s line-out steal, though, galvanised the whole stadium. Ireland finished with a flurry of activity with England pinned into their own 22, a knock-on by Mike Brown bringing to a close a slipshod day.
The final whistle, the roars erupted and the England players stared in disbelief. It was all too true, however. Their dream had been shattered.
Scoring sequence: 3-0, Sexton pen; 3-3, Farrell pen; 8-3, Henderson try; 10-3, Sexton con; 10-6, Farrell pen; 13-6, Sexton pen; 13-9, Farrell pen;