Six Nations: Five takeaways from Ireland v England as Johnny Sexton steers his side to Grand Slam glory

Johnny Sexton for Ireland after grand slam six nations win over England Credit: Alamy
Johnny Sexton for Ireland after grand slam six nations win over England Credit: Alamy

Following a 29-16 victory for Ireland over England in their Six Nations fixture, here’s our five takeaways from the match at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday.

The top line

Ireland concluded a memorable season for them as, predictably, they took the Grand Slam against 14-man England, pushed all the way by the visitors in a remarkable match in Dublin.

It was far from a vintage Irish display; England, chastened by criticism from all parts in the week leading up to the game, turned up and turned up big time. They looked transformed around breakdown and contact and, with Owen Farrell back at the helm at 10, had far more control over the match than a week ago against France.

Nevertheless, the best sides know when to win ugly, and Ireland stuck at their task manfully, aided by the immense home support and the sheer determination to close down their first Grand Slam since 2018. With Johnny Sexton and Jamison Gibson-Park magnificent in control, their set-piece, discipline, and greater red zone efficiency were the cornerstones of their win – a victory ground out by power and self-belief above anything else.

A brace for Dan Sheehan and one each for Robbie Henshaw and Rob Herring demonstrated Ireland’s greater firepower, but this was nowhere near a complete performance. Winning was everything for Ireland on Saturday, but when they look back at their performance, there will be concerns over the issues England gave them at the breakdown.

Nevertheless, four years of impressive growth reached a summit, and Ireland are very much the worthy Six Nations champions of 2023.

Turning points

England conceded 13 penalties to Ireland’s seven, and when that happens in a Test match, you will always be facing an uphill climb. Nevertheless, two key turning points saw full-back Freddie Steward see red for what most judges believed was a rugby collision with Hugo Keenan, and later on in the match, Jack Willis was rather remarkably yellow carded for a tip tackle despite the initial lift being caused by another player and despite Willis bringing the man to ground safely.

The Steward incident was surprising for a number of reasons – firstly, the collision was caused just as much by Keenan as Steward, as he stumbled and fell into a fairly passive England full-back who clearly wasn’t attempting to do anything other than brace himself for the impact.

There has to be a question of foul play – was there any? It’s hard to understand what precisely the foul play would be – no tackle was attempted, so there’s no question of no arms, Steward didn’t change direction, and there was the clear mitigation of Keenan slipping lower into Steward. What was the degree of danger? Steward was certainly passive in the contact, so it’s hard to argue he caused a high level of danger. In point of fact, you could argue that Steward stopped precisely to prevent an issue, but Jaco Peyper saw differently to many and, with the home crowd bellowing, issued a rather perplexing red card against the Englishman.

Whilst there is a climate of no tolerance around head impacts, this doesn’t mean that the protocols prescribed by World Rugby shouldn’t be adhered to – and it is fair to question whether or not they were followed in this instance.

Irish resilience

Nothing personifies Irish resilience and spirit more than the greying limping figure of Sexton, and it was apt that, in likely his final Six Nations match in Dublin, he steered his team to victory in a personal performance of some stature. In doing so, he took Ronan O’Gara’s Six Nations points scoring record with him and leaves the Aviva Stadium as arguably the greatest Irish fly-half in history.

His contribution to both Leinster and Ireland cannot be understated; 114 caps, six British and Irish Lions caps, 1061 points, and two Grand Slams puts him in the very elite of the game, but both Ireland and he know he’s not done yet; he limped off with a torn abductor just before the end of the match, and Ireland will sweat on his fitness with big games approaching for both province and country.

The interesting thing is the resilience of Sexton rubs off on others around him – players like Peter O’Mahony, Andrew Porter, and Henshaw – they all have the hallmark characteristics of the fly-half – commitment, passion, anger and, above all, self-belief.

Ireland got through this evening, not with their customary fluency – they got through it with the qualities we mentioned above – and nobody personifies those behaviours more than Jonathan Jeremiah Sexton, now, unquestionably, an all-time great of the game.

Shuffle forward

The scoreline might not suggest it, but this was a small shuffle forward for England in terms of their progression under Steve Borthwick. Nick Easter commented in this week’s Expert Witness that fight, structure and breakdown were absent against France and that those areas were the key to England’s regeneration.

The visitors stepped up remarkably in those areas, with a huge defensive shift led by the outstanding player on the pitch, Willis. Alongside him, David Ribbans showed some skillful touches cleaning up around the breakdown, and Maro Itoje looked back to something near his default standard.

In truth, England possibly got the better of the collision exchanges, with Manu Tuilagi underlining his Test match quality with an impressive display of physicality. However, it was their desperation in contact that led to overplaying and that, in turn, saw the penalty count rise against them. At set-piece, they failed to pressure Ireland’s lineout, which gave their breakaway moves a lot of space with which to operate. The first Sheehan try saw Josh van der Flier pull Alex Dombrandt way out of his channel to send the hooker scampering through; the first rule of a number eight defending that channel is ‘stay inside the ball’ and Dombrandt failed to do this, bought the decoy move and left the hole open.

In the backline, we saw a fabulous kicking performance from both half-backs, but one diluted by Steward’s chasing absence for half the game. Farrell was a rock at 10, and even if he missed five or six tackles (he completed 12), those were a result of him pushing fast from 10 to pressure – something that caused havoc in the fluency of the Irish handling.

England now have a few more pillars to build on. They have some world-class players missing – Lawes, Curry, Cowan-Dickie, and have Mercer away in France. However, tonight, things look marginally more promising for Steve Borthwick than they did this time a week ago.


Ireland will be concerned about the pressure England exerted around collision and breakdown and how frenzied their passing and execution became as a result. Without Tadhg Beirne, they lacked an edge at ruck time, and Andy Farrell will be looking to work out how to cope with such an aggressive defence in time for the World Cup. He’ll also be concerned about getting through the middle of sides when width didn’t work. But these are minor issues when you’ve just won a Grand Slam and are ranked number one in the world.

For England, keep the power, lose the penalties and increase the penetration will be the biggest message. They got a lot of the basics right in this performance, and those will be the platform moving forward, but bluntly they never looked liked breaking Ireland down with ball in hand or with phased running. But those parts of the game can be bolted on and improved; tonight, England’s key work-on will be to remember the good things they did in Dublin, set this performance as a benchmark for physicality and power, and simply springboard their future on the small platform of hope they created in Dublin.

READ MORE: Six Nations: Ireland secure Grand Slam after hard-fought victory over 14-man England

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