Heroic Ireland halt England’s chariot one win short of history
Eddie Jones’s side miss out on back-to-back Grand Slams and world record 19th win
Record wreckers. And so Ireland have ended two world record 18-match winning sequences in the same season. This may not have been quite the scalp which a first win in 111 years over New Zealand represented, but given the circumstances, it wasn’t far behind.
This was a huge test of Ireland’s resolve and their strength in depth, and they passed it heroically. Already without Conor Murray and Rob Kearney, they lost Jamie Heaslip in the warm-up and Keith Earls by half-time. When Luke McGrath came on, he was Ireland’s third championship debutant of the second half.
In winning, not only did Ireland end England’s run and attempts at back to back Grand Slams, but they secured second place in the final table and retained their ranking in the world’s top four for May’s World Cup pool draw.
It won’t have done some Lions hopefuls any harm either, notably Robbie Henshaw, Jack McGrath and Tadhg Furlong; an outstanding backrow – buttressed by the enforced promotion of a fired-up Peter O’Mahony – or Iain Henderson.
Regrets, they’ll still have a few, but Ireland at least ended the campaign on a hugely positive note, with a display of intelligence and huge guts.
For the first half, Ireland painstakingly applied pressure on England by keeping possession and dominating territory, taking their chances off an improved lineout and maul, before then absorbing everything England could throw at them, which initially amounted to sticking the ball up their jumper. But they had been rattled by the ferocity and desire of Ireland’s performance.
As the smoke lifted from the pre-match hoopla, murmurs filled the ground following two unsuspecting announcements, firstly that the kick-off had to be delayed due to the extraordinary and farcical endgame in Paris, and that Heaslip had been ruled out after rolling his ankle in the warm-up, to be replaced by O’Mahony with CJ Stander moving to number eight and Dan Leavy being promoted to the bench.
That French try by Damien Chouly in the 20th minute of overtime, coupled with the conversion by Camille Lopez, was worth a good chunk of money to the French Federation and to the IRFU, for at least it assured Ireland of fourth place above Wales, as well as leaving the door open for second.
As well as that, Ireland were assuredly motivated by a desire to achieve a measure of redemption after those defeats to Scotland and Wales.
England had demonstrated an array of superb strike moves off lineouts last week, so in response it was clear from the outset that Ireland’s gameplan revolved around keeping possession. It made for some end-of-the-seat recycling deep in their own territory, especially with the greasy pill, but the clearing out was typically ruthless, and was helped by both varying the point of attack and by the quality of the carries. Tellingly though, England had only two lineouts in the first half.
Indeed, not alone did O’Mahony’s promotion not detract one iota from the carrying of the backrow, but it also strengthened Ireland’s lineout, with the maul rediscovering its potency. O’Mahony was simply immense.
As for Jared Payne’s return, in truth he looked understandably rusty, dropping the first two high balls that came his way, although his ability to hit the line and link, notably with Earls on the outside channels, discernibly added to Ireland’s running game.
Payne’s first fumble of what was a fairly routine up-and-under typified a scrappy start, and of some relief for the home crowd – whose initial agitation was almost palpable – was that Mike Brown fumbled a fairly routine pass. When Johnny Sexton took to the air and Payne won the aerial deflection, the ball was gathered by James Haskell only for Jack McGrath to pounce when the ball sprayed loose.
Stander, Seán O’Brien, Henshaw, O’Brien again and Garry Ringrose all had strong carries and although Simon Zebo’s attempted chip with advantage went loose in the hit, Rory Best’s superb reverse pass enabled Payne to dummy through and link with Earls. Alas he lost the ball in contact but compensation came by way of Sexton opening the scoring, as Best temporarily underwent an HIA.
Sexton was then caught high and late by Itoje, who was fortunate to merely escape with a warning and a penalty. “You have to be careful with your timing,” Jerome Garces said to him.
Sexton was fit enough to find a good touch, prompting another good Irish maul and a prolonged bout of ball retention inside the English 22. Ringrose, O’Brien, Stander and O’Mahony all made good carries before Billy Vunipola came in from the side.
Ireland went to the corner again and Best, now back on, went long and accurately to O’Mahony as, once again, England did not lift any of their jumpers to compete. Attacking the tail of the line, the pack rumbled infield, Donnacha Ryan shunting Henderson forward for the latter to utilise every inch of his frame as well as his power in reaching out for the line. Sexton’s conversion made it 10-3.
A madcap couple of minutes with the ball in play saw, first, Payne release Earls on one flank, before Payne had to retrieve the ball and Zebo countered, only for O’Brien to knock-on and O’Mahony grubber up the line. Farrell, with advantage, weighed up his options as time – and everyone on the pitch – seemed to stand still, Elliot Daly latching onto the ball ahead of Earls only to be brilliantly tackled by Kieran Marmion. Ireland were then further indebted to a poach by Best, helped by Henshaw, after Ryan had chop tackled Courtney Lawes.
Ireland went through the phases, the backrow again figuring prominently as they carried over the gainline, but Sexton’s bomb was overcooked for Daly to gather and a dummy maul and intricate move to create a hole for Ringrose came unstuck due to a forward pass by Marmion.
However, Ben Youngs passed from a scrum outside the 22, Zebo watched George Ford’s long punt drift over the touchline, thus giving them a 22-metre lineout.
Although the maul was turned over, good scrum pressure by the Irish pack and pressure by Marmion delayed the pass to Farrell, and Sexton’s oft-criticised chest-up tackling was rewarded with a turnover scrum from the ensuing choke tackle – with help from Henshaw and O’Brien.
However, O’Mahony tackled Itoje without the ball for England to come downfield. But Payne watched Jonathan Joseph’s kick over the touchline and Best saw out the half by finding O’Mahony with the throw, as again England didn’t compete even though the 40 minutes were up.
The half had fairly flown, and Ireland were full value for their lead, but it was hard to envisage the home side reprising their dominance of the first half in terms of territory (76 per cent) and possession (74 per cent).
Nonetheless, England – flat-track bullies a week ago – did look rattled, as evidenced upon the resumption by Anthony Watson ending one attack by spinning the ball. However, Ireland were further disrupted by loss of Earls during the interval, which not only meant a debut for Andrew Conway but placed a greater premium on Payne, who looked bunched even in the first half, lasting the full 80.
Conway couldn’t take in his first high ball, but Payne promptly took a steepling high ball, and Itoje escaped punishment for another high tackle. Instead, having turned over a maul, Jack McGrath came through on Ben Youngs to concede a silly penalty. It was only the third conceded by Ireland in the match, and Farrell landed it from fully 45 metres to make it 10-6.
Zebo was then penalised for bringing down a maul, even though he didn’t succeed, which was every bit as bizarre as it sounds. This prompted an ominous maul by the English pack and another penalty, along with the day’s loudest rendition of Swing Low, the home crowd responding with derisory boos and their loudest roaring of The Fields thus far.
Now it was up to the team to respond, and how they did. After another English maul inched them inside the Irish 10-metre line, Sexton again held up the English carrier, this time Haskell, and again was ably assisted by Henshaw and O’Brien for the turnover scrum.
Marmion opted for a good touchfinder off it, and then Payne countered brilliantly, bouncing to his feet when not held in a double tackle, then fending off Youngs to break clear. Payne was then clearly caught high by Billy Vunipola, but despite thunderous booing to replays of the ‘tackle’ on the big screens, the officials took no action whatsoever.
Instead, Farrell was penalised for a high tackle on Sexton, as ever putting his body on the line, and was then hit late by the newly arrived Tom Wood. “I don’t want to come to you all the time,” said Best to Garces.
“We have a TMO,” said Garces.
“But I also have a responsibility to my 10 and my team,” said Best.
Sexton dusted himself down yet again, and unerringly bisected the posts from 45 metres to restore Ireland’s seven-point lead.
However, a high tackle by Conway on the newly introduced ex-Leinster man, Ben Te’o, led to another remorseless English maul. This earned the penalty, Payne beating Watson in the air to Farrell’s free play, and they opted for the posts, for Farrell to make it 13-9.
All this happened to the customary flurry of toings and goings from the benches, with England reshuffling their backline almost entirely, only for Te’o to leave the field with suspected concussion and thus Ford returned.
Ireland were ensnared in their own half without the ball, forced into tackling mode, and when Henshaw was penalised for not releasing after the tackle – though he was adamant he did – England went up the line entering the last seven minutes. There they went safety first to Itoje at the front, where he was beaten to Jamie George’s throw by O’Mahony.
From England’s perspective, this was compounded by Danny Care being penalised for slapping the ball down from Luke McGrath at the base of the scrum.
Ireland went up the line and to their maul, Cian Healy breaking off it for a thunderous 25-metre carry, and a few phases later Luke McGrath kicked perfectly to the corner. Ireland forced England to find touch, but for once their maul was turned over.
To the backdrop of the Fields of Athenry reverberating around the Aviva to such a level you’d swear a roof had been closed, England had one final throw with a scrum on their own 22.
The force was undeniably with Ireland now, and when England went wide one last time, Mike Brown ended the game as he began it, with a fumble.
Accepting his Man of the Match award, the phenomenal O’Mahony described the Irish squad as “special” and said they had shown their heart. They did that alright.
SCORING SEQUENCE: 11 mins Sexton pen 3-0; 17 mins Farrell pen 3-3; 24 min Henderson try, Sexton con 10-3; (half-time 10-3); 51 mins Farrell pen 10-6; 62 mins Sexton pen 13-6; 67 mins Farrell pen 13-9.
IRELAND: Jared Payne (Ulster); Keith Earls (Munster), Garry Ringrose (Leinster), Robbie Henshaw (Leinster), Simon Zebo (Munster); Jonathan Sexton (Leinster), Kieran Marmion (Connacht); Jack McGrath (Leinster), Rory Best (Ulster, capt), Tadhg Furlong (Leinster); Donnacha Ryan (Munster), Iain Henderson (Ulster); Peter O’Mahony (Munster), Seán O’Brien (Leinster), CJ Stander (Munster).
Replacements: Niall Scannell (Munster) for Best (11-18 and 73 mins), Andrew Conway (Munster) for Conway (half-time), Cian Healy (Leinster) for McGrath (60 min), Devin Toner (Leinster) for D Ryan (65 mins), Dan Leavy (Leinster) for O’Brien (68 mins), Luke McGrath (Leinster) for Marmion (69 mins), John Ryan (Munster) for Furlong (76 mins). Not used: Paddy Jackson (Dungannon/Ulster).
ENGLAND: M Brown (Harlequins); A Watson (Bath), J Joseph (Bath), O Farrell (Saracens), E Daly (Wasps); G Ford (Bath), B Youngs (Leicester); J Marler (Harlequins) D Hartley (Northampton, capt), D Cole (Leicester); J Launchbury (Wasps), C Lawes (Northampton); M Itoje (Saracens), J Haskell (Wasps), B Vunipola (Saracens).
Replacements: Mako Vunipola (Saracens) for Marler (half-time), Jamie George (Saracens) for Hartley (56 mins), Tom Wood (Northampton Saints) for Haskell (60 mins), Nathan Hughes (Wasps) for B Vunipola, Danny Care (Harlequins) for Youngs, Ben Te’o (Worcester Warriors) for Ford (all 63 mins), Jack Nowell (Exeter Chiefs) for Joseph (68 mins), Ford for Te’o (70 mins), Kyle Sinckler (Harlequins) for Cole (78 mins).
Referee: Jerome Garces (France)