Late hits merely stoke Sexton's competitive fires
Tackles overlooked by ref, but world-class outhalf makes sure to punish England
Thoroughly vindicated: Iain Henderson scores Ireland’s try against England. Photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne Livepic/Reuters
Ireland 13 England 9
Why is there even a hint of a debate about whether Johnny Sexton ever starts at outhalf or not? There’s never much of a debate in the minds of Joe Schmidt and the Irish coaches, and this match was compelling evidence as to why this is so. Ireland’s world-class outhalf has rarely put his body so much on the line or played so well for his country.
Targeted and buffeted yet again, Sexton had to dust himself down after not one, not two, but three late hits: James Haskell after a kick ahead, Maro Itoje after a delayed pass and then replacement Tom Wood soon after his arrival, clearly with that aim in mind. Itoje, already warned, went unpunished for a high tackle on Sexton in the 48th minute.
Wood’s late hit on Sexton prompted a memorable dialogue between Rory Best and referee Jerome Garces, who as in previous conversations with the Irish captain, contended that the TMO was keeping an eye on all this.
“I don’t want to come to you all the time,” said Best to Garces, “but our ‘10’ is being constantly hit late.”
“We are in charge. We have a TMO, okay,” said Garces.
“But I also have a responsibility to my team and their safety,” said Best and, when Garces again stressed that he had the TMO to look at all of this, the Irish captain added: “I get it in the neck from Joe [Schmidt] if I don’t say anything.”
Judging by the breakdown in communications between the TMO and the referee when confirming Iain Henderson’s try via one of the assistants, it was clear the technology had failed. Garces should have been aware of this.
In any case, the roughhousing merely stoked Sexton’s competitive fires. Soon after Owen Farrell had trimmed Ireland’s lead to 10-6, England thrice returned to their maul. The chariot was beginning to rumble ominously, and Swing Low echoed around a febrile Aviva Stadium. Cue derisory boos from the Irish crowd, and a defiant rendition of The Fields.
Now it was time for the team to show their defiance.
Sexton, using all his experience, signalled to Robbie Henshaw and lined up Haskell for his trademark chest-up tackle, with Henshaw and Sean O’Brien then completing the choke tackle, as the same trio had done in the first-half on Farrell.
Cue thunderous roars. It felt huge. It felt as big as a try.
Kieran Marmion found a nice touch. Ireland launched Peter O’Mahony into the air to put pressure on Courtney Lawes, a stunning counter by Jared Payne ignited the home team and crowd alike (all the more so as Billy Vunipola’s high tackle on Payne also went unpunished) before Farrell was pinged for a high tackle on Sexton.
Sexton then, having been dumped by Wood’s late hit as Garces played an advantage for Itoje being offside, picked himself up and landed a 45-metre penalty from near the left touchline. Cue more thunderous roars. That felt huge too.
The other pivotal moments came courtesy of O’Mahony. His coming into the back-row – after Jamie Heaslip injured his hamstring in the warm-up – supported those who contend that there’s a better balance to the loose forwards with the fired-up Corkman in the mix.
For sure, his spring and relative lightness make him the best lineout option of the backrowers available to Ireland, though it’s worth remembering that Heaslip especially, but also Sean O’Brien and CJ Stander, have been effective lineout options in the past.
O’Mahony was Best’s go-to man at the tail of the line for the maul which led to Iain Henderson’s try. Curiously though, despite their array of jumpers, England again did not contest the Irish throw as Wales, and particularly Alun Wyn Jones, had done to such effect. With the outstanding Donnacha Ryan shunting him forward, Henderson did brilliantly to reach out for the line and score the game’s only try.
Hence, the decision to go to the corner just past the first quarter – the subject of much debate heretofore – was thoroughly vindicated and proved to be the winning of this match. So was the decision to promote Henderson.
O’Mahony also stole a critical English throw inside the last 10 minutes after Farrell had opted to go up the line rather than trim the Irish lead to a point. It’s worth noting that O’Mahony would have been on the pitch at that stage even if he had been a replacement. But O’Mahony was immense.
O’Mahony also led the tackle count on a dozen, while missing none, the same as Henderson with Tadhg Furlong on 11 in another unstinting effort of almost 80 minutes. O’Mahony made 10 carries. Here, as usual, Stander led the way with 20, followed by Shaun Payne on 16 and Sean O’Brien on 12.
Critically, Ireland also won the breakdown. As well as the rapid-fire and efficient clearing-out which is their hallmark, they competed there on England’s ball far more ferociously than had been the case away to Wales.
Ireland had seen that the English lineout was their primary launch pad for the strike moves that filleted Scotland and so kept the ball in hand and restricted England to just two throws in the first-half, before having to defend for their lives for spells in the second-half.
Ultimately, this was a victory founded on a smart game plan, well executed, as well as physical defiance and guts. A good team had not become a bad one overnight.
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; 63 mins Sexton pen 13-6; 67 mins Farrell pen 13-9.
IRELAND: Jared Payne (Ulster); Keith Earls (Young Munster/Munster), Garry Ringrose (UCD/Leinster), Robbie Henshaw (Buccaneers/Leinster), Simon Zebo (Cork Constitution/Munster); Jonathan Sexton (St Mary’s College/Leinster), Kieran Marmion (Corinthians/Connacht); Jack McGrath (St Mary’s College/Leinster), Rory Best (Banbridge/Ulster) (capt), Tadhg Furlong (Clontarf/Leinster), Donnacha Ryan (Shannon/Munster), Iain Henderson (Ballynahinch/Ulster), Peter O’Mahony (Cork Constitution/Munster), Sean O’Brien (UCD/Leinster), CJ Stander (Shannon/Munster).
Replacements: Niall Scannell (Dolphin/Munster) for Best (11-18 and 73 mins), Andrew Conway (Garryowen/Munster) for Conway (half-time), Cian Healy (Clontarf/Leinster) for McGrath (60 min), Devin Toner (Lansdowne/Leinster) for D Ryan (65 mins), Dan Leavy (UCD/Leinster) for O’Brien (68 mins), Luke McGrath (UCD/Leinster) for Marmion (69 mins).
John Ryan (Cork Constitution/Munster) for Furlong (76 mins).
Not used: Paddy Jackson (Dungannon/Ulster),
ENGLAND: Mike Brown (Harlequins); Anthony Watson (Bath), Jonathan Joseph (Bath), Owen Farrell (Saracens); Elliot Daly (Wasps), George Ford (Bath), Ben Youngs (Leicester Tigers); Joe Marler (Harlequins), Dylan Hartley (Northampton Saints) (capt), Dan Cole (Leicester Tigers), Joe Launchbury (Wasps), Courtney Lawes (Northampton Saints), Maro Itoje (Saracens), James Haskell (Wasps), Billy 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)