Ireland secure Grand Slam to give Johnny Sexton the perfect Six Nations sign off

Dan Sheehan scores two tries as Andy Farrell’s side finally shake off 14-man England in nervy display

Ireland 29 England 16

And so it really has come to pass. Another giant step for this Irish team in their quest to be the greatest Irish team ever. This was not their best performance of the 2023 Guinness Six Nations, but their fifth win out of five, and fourth with a bonus point, left no room for argument that they are worthy Grand Slammers.

At times, it made for uncomfortable viewing. For the first time in this Six Nations there was an edginess to Ireland’s display which perhaps betrayed that the magnitude of the prize at stake had affected them. They are human after all.

Not surprisingly, they played most of the rugby, but couldn’t translate this on to the scoreboard. Handling errors undid some good approach play and England targeted their breakdown to good effect. England were narky and looked for fights, took plenty of injury timeouts, wasted time and as expected kicked the leather off the ball. They also brought plenty of aggression, although as one suspected, too much so at times.

As well as losing the penalty count 13-7, they conceded one yellow and one red card for fullback Freddie Steward at the end of the first half for catching Hugo Keenan on the head with his bicep, a decision that will forever polarise opinion.


It also definitely eased Ireland’s task, but they held their nerve and their belief. Their lineout maul defence, and defence generally, was smart until a late consolation try and they were equally smart in the variety of their attacks off their own lineout, particularly in Jamison Gibson-Park exploiting the blindside.

Three of their tries came from the hookers, with two from the explosive Dan Sheehan. James Ryan had another mighty, Trojan game, Josh van der Flier was Josh van der Flier, Johnny Sexton was unwavering in his commitment to the cause and pursuit of space. Bundee Aki won his duel with Manu Tuilagi, James Lowe had another hugely effective game, as did Mack Hansen and, until forced off by Steward’s high hit, so too Keenan. There was also impact off the bench, notably Jack Conan again.

As chances went abegging, Tadhg Furlong overlooking three men to his outside in an off-colour display which also saw Ireland thrice concede scrum penalties int the eyes of the unimpressive Jaco Peyper. Sexton had no option but to take a three-pointer in the 19th minute after earlier being held up over line the when opting for a quick tap, and so eclipse Ronan O’Gara’s championship record.

Ironically, it then needed a rendition of Swing Low to bring the Irish crowd alive, as usual, and the threat of England’s first real attacking foray to galvanise the home team after Tuilagi was launched menacingly up the middle. Ireland’s big defensive set was roared on before Keenan tackled Anthony Watson and Lowe dumped Tuilagi over the touchline.

Hansen’s daring counterattack to step Farrell as the last man, and beat Itoje, further lifted Ireland, and was augmented by a strong Robbie Henshaw carry.

Alex Dombrandt was pinged for a late hit on Sexton. He also led with the shoulder and it was high, which might have led to further punishment, while Farrell seemed to imply that Sexton was faking the affects by holding his head. It was getting feisty.

But England were being a little to ill-disciplined for their own good.

When Ellis Genge tackled Gibson-Park off the ball, Sexton kicked to the 22 and Van der Flier peeled infield off the fake drive set-up before passing infield for Sheehan on the charge as Kyle Sinckler failed to fill the gap. There was no stopping Sheehan from that range and Sexton converted for a 13-6 lead.

In first-half added time, Ireland found some fluidity to their attack until Hansen’s attempted offload for Keenan went to ground. As Keenan stooped to pick up the ball, Steward turned sidewards, jumped slightly and caught Keenan on the head with his upper arm.

Slow motion replays made it look worse, and it was hard to know where Steward was meant to go, but Peyper and his TMO Marius Joncker deemed Steward’s actions to be “direct contact with the head” with “a high level of danger”. Technically correct, and perhaps most pertinently Keenan departed for an HIA, to be replaced by Jimmy O’Brien, and didn’t reappear.

On the resumption, England looked to cover the backfield with Anthony Watson or Henry Arundell with help from Farrell or Jack van Poortvliet. Looked for a scrap, they took prolonged injury timeouts and just hoofed the ball high into the air.

For a while and with a taut scoreline it worked; a penalty by Farrell, for a third English scrum penalty even making it a one-score game.

After even Sexton sliced a touchfinder. Ireland needed a lift, and Ryan Baird, who contributed handsomely in the biggest game of his life, provided it by winning a turnover penalty inside the Irish 22.

Sexton then perfectly placed a steepling crosskick to find grass and Hansen hounded Watson over the line to earn a five-metre scrum. Aki and Conan trucked it up in turn before Henshaw scored off Aki’s pass when Gibson-Park reloaded to the blindside.

After Ireland went infield and reloaded right for Sheehan to break up the touchline, again Gibson-Park reloaded to Hansen on the blindside and this time Conan took out two tacklers and freed his hands with a wonderful offload for Sheehan to finish in the corner. His last, compelling contribution of the day sealed the deal and the Slam.

England threw their 14 men into a remorseless catch-and-drive for a consolation try, to the backdrop of the The Fields. But after a rousing reception for the limping Sexton in the 73rd minute, Jack Willis was binned for a tip-tackle on Ross Byrne.

The Irish pack responded with their own lineout maul, from which Rob Herring sprang to the blindside to break Ben Curry’s tackle and reach out for the line without needing Conor Murray and Hansen to his right to seal the bonus point.

As the crowd bellowed out The Fields one more time and roared on their support, one final English maul and attack was repelled. The presentation, and the mother of all parties, could begin.

“Its dream come true stuff,” Sexton told the crowd before the trophy presentation and lap of honour, for which most stayed for thankfully.

SCORING SEQUENCE – 8 mins: Farrell pen 0-3; 15: Farrell pen 0-6; 19: Sexton pen 3-6; 33: Sheehan try, Sexton con 10-6; (half-time 10-6); 51: Farrell pen 10-9; 61: Henshaw try, Sexton con 17-9; 68: Herring try, Sexton con 24-9; 73: George try, Farrell con 24-16.


Hugo Keenan (Leinster); Mack Hansen (Connacht), Robbie Henshaw (Leinster, Bundee Aki (Connacht), James Lowe (Leinster); Johnny Sexton (Leinster, capt), Jamison Gibson-Park (Leinster); Andrew Porter (Leinster), Dan Sheehan (Leinster), Tadhg Furlong (Leinster); Ryan Baird (Leinster), James Ryan (Leinster); Peter O’Mahony (Munster), Josh van der Flier (Leinster), Caelan Doris (Leinster).

Replacements: Jimmy O’Brien (Leinster) for Keenan (40+4 mins), Jack Conan (Leinster) for O’Mahony (56, Tom O’Toole (Ulster) for Furlong (59), Rob Herring (Ulster) for Sheehan (70), Conor Murray (Munster) for Gibson-Park and Ross Byrne (Leinster) for Sexton (74), Kieran Treadwell (Ulster) for Baird (75).


Freddie Steward (Leicester); Anthony Watson (Leicester), Henry Slade (Exerer), Manu Tuilagi (Sale), Henry Arundell (London Irish); Owen Farrell (Saracens, capt), Jack van Poortvliet (Leicester); Ellis Genge (Bristol), Jamie George (Saracens), Kyle Sinckler (Bristol); Maro Itoje (Saracens), David Ribbans (Northampton); Lewis Ludlam (Northampton), Jack Willis (Toulouse), Alex Dombrandt (Harlequins).

Replacements: Ben Curry (Sale) for Willis (53 mins), Joe Marchant (Harlequins) for Arundel (59), Mako Vunipola (Saracens) for Genge (64), Jack Willis for Dombrandt (65 mins), Dan Cole (Leicester) for Sinckler (68), Nick Isiekwe (Saracens) for Ribbans and Alex Mitchell (Northampton) for Van Poortvliet (both 70 mins).

Not used: Jack Walker (Harlequins), Marcus Smith (Harlequins).

Red card: Steward (40 (+3) mins. Yellow card: Willis (76 mins).

Referee: Jaco Peyper (South Africa).

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times