Ireland 32 England 18
Not for the first time after a redemptive last-day win over England in Dublin, the thought occurred that maybe Ireland should envisage they’re playing the auld enemy in every game.
Once again the sight of the men in white inspired the men in green to produce their best performance of the Championship. Never mind that it finished two tries apiece because, if anything, the scoreline flattered an out-fought and out-thought England.
This was a thoroughly convincing performance and victory to end England’s four-match winning run in the fixture, which was fashioned behind the scenes and on the training ground, and superbly executed.
Ireland utterly outsmarted England with their remodelled scrum, as outlined by Mike Ross before the game, whereby the locks begin on their knees and the front-row crowds the space.
This led to Mako Vunipola being pinged three times in the first half and ultimately a 14-12 penalty count in Ireland’s favour even after a late barrage of penalties to England which also saw Bundee Aki incur the second red card of his Irish career while Conor Murray was sin-binned.
Aki’s red card was for a high hit on Billy Vunipola, which Mathieu Reynal and his TMO Romain Poite said lacked mitigation, but the English number 8 clearly dipped before contact.
England briefly threatened to play a get-out-of-jail card by trimming a 26-6 lead to 26-11 only for Ireland to calmly re-assert their authority.
Co-opting Paul O’Connell onto the ticket, as some of us believed from the outset, has proved a masterstroke and once again the lineout was virtually exemplary. There was also invention, yielding a stunning, game-defining first try by Keith Earls, who was unlucky to have a second quality finish ruled out.
Much like this time, oul’ man Earlsy still has wheels.
The breakdown also worked a treat, and enabled Ireland to continually vary the point of attack with tip-ons and offloads from high tempo recycling. There were little one-off carries, as continually the first receiver made the pass which kept the English defence guessing.
It couldn’t have been done without the hard yakka up front, where CJ Stander bowed out in trademark, leg-pumping, physically fearless style. He was in tears soon after it was all over.
Moving him to 6 didn’t dilute him, while Jack Conan vindicated his recall with a big, try-scoring contribution.
Iain Henderson had another monster game and Tadhg Berine wouldn’t have been flattered by another man of the match gong which instead went, also deservingly, to Robbie Henshaw.
Revelling in the space afforded him, his Gaelic football-honed chasing and aerial skills were fully utilised.
Conor Murray also justified his recall but Johnny Sexton’s continuing brilliance and leadership cannot be underestimated even if, it seems, they often are. He gave so much energy in attack and defence, bravely engaging contact on both sides of the ball, and landing eight from eight for a 22-point haul which takes his tally for this year’s campaign to 25 from 26 kicks at goal.
Without any individual errors, the defence (with Rob Herring and Josh van der Flier making valuable contributions) also kept England’s attack in check, engineering some good old choke tackles and turnovers.
About England’s only real area of potency was their maul. Yep, that was pretty much it.
Initially Ireland didn’t help themselves from the off when twice wasting attacking ball inside halfway as both Aki and Henshaw were tackled or strayed into touch albeit Elliot Daly also kicked out on the full.
The game’s first big play was by Maro Itoje, so often a thorn in Irish or Leinster sides, when winning a clean turnover in the jackal after Murray tapped a penalty to Furlong and an early drive by the Irish pack at the ensuing lineout enabled Owen Farrell to open the scoring.
A key moment came after Jonny May reclaimed another Ben Youngs’ box kick and George Ford’s long diagonal punt found vast swathes of space in Ireland’s backfield - reviving memories of this game here two years ago.
Anthony Watson’s chase and poaching forced Jacob Stockdale to concede a penalty, and Itoje gathered the resulting flat throw to be driven over the line, but Iain Henderson did superbly to hold up his counterpart over the line.
Outfoxing England at scrum time began to have a major effect on the game, beginning with a penalty at England’s five metre scrum against Mako Vunipola.
Henshaw made a superb defensive read to nail Ford with Aki and Sexton completing the choke tackle for the turnover scrum. Henshaw then chased Sexton’s perfectly weighted bomb for a big hit on Daly and Stockdale was in over the ball to earn the penalty which Sexton landed.
Dave Kilcoyne was forced off after a nasty looking clash of heads, requiring an hour’s shift from Cian Healy, before the alert Aki dug Murray and Ireland out of a hole when re-gathering a bouncing up-and-under by Ford. Cue another scrum penalty and Ireland’s first attacking lineout, a backpedalling Jack Conan beating Tom Curry to Herring’s long throw and palming it infield for Earls to gather at full tilt through the ensuing gap.
Earls could have pinned his ears back and gone for the posts, and probably been collared, but instead brilliantly stepped May to run on and score his 34th try.
After landing a fine conversion, Sexton cancelled out a Farrell penalty for another collapsed maul when Vunipola was pinged at scrum time again.
Cue another scrum penalty and another Irish lineout about 40 metres out, prompting a sustained attack that only lacked a feverish Aviva crowd in what was probably Ireland’s best spell of rugby in the tournament, and against ferocious defending.
Again attacking off the tail, and again uber efficient in their clearing-out, there were big carries by Healy, Stander et al and also Sexton, as well as Keenan reclaiming a Sexton cross-kick, before Stockdale made inroads on the left.
After Sexton carried again, Conan was quick onto the scene and even quicker to pick up, bursting through Luke Cowan-Dickie’s tackle and reaching out for the line. Again, Sexton completed a fine conversion and Ireland led 20-6 at the break.
England responded by bringing on Ellis Genge and Jamie George, and sought to make inroads into Ireland’s lead. But they were penalised for crossing after going to the corner before Ford aimlessly crosskicked to Keenan inside the Irish 22.
England looked rattled.
Ireland appeared to have engineered a wonderful try after a big carry by Henderson into England’s heart. The ball was worked wide to Stander for another of his charges and Ireland offloaded merrily with an advantage which Sexton kicked onto the corner for Earls to catch the bouncing ball and touch down in one adroit movement.
But Reynal and his TMO Poite correctly detected the slightest of knock-ons by Healy, so compensation came by way of another Sexton penalty for a tackle off the ball, making it 23-6 instead of 27-6.
Eddie Jones replaced Ford, and then saw Farrell go off for a HIA, meaning Dan Robson temporarily filled in at outhalf.
England opted for a scrum from an indirect scrum penalty outside their own 22 and it almost felt like a few thousand were in the ground when the Irish scrum obliterated the English pack, a pumped up Furlong leaving Genge for dust. Sexton made it 26-6.
The whole tenor of the game promptly changed when Reynal and Poite agreed that Aki caught Vunipola’s head with his shoulder, resulting in a red card.
What’s more, England went to the corner and George broke an unprotected blindside to put Youngs over for a try. But Daly missed the touchline conversion and Ireland’s response was even better.
Working their way left and right through the phases, after Tadhg Beirne’s tip on pass to Healy, George Martin was pinged for not releasing. Sexton again nailed his penalty, via the upright, and after a superb maul, the captain landed his seventh kick from seven.
A procession of late English penalties and charges did see Ireland reduced to 13 men when Murray was binned and England used their two-man advantage to work May over in the corner, Daly drop kicking the touchline conversion.
That was their lot, Ireland running the clock down before Sexton kicked the ball dead. Stander was afforded the opportunity to lead the team off, and he could not conceal his tears.
Scoring sequence: 9 mins Farrell pen 0-3; 18 mins Sexton pen 3-3; 22 mins Earls try, Sexton con 10-3; 27 mins Farrell pen 10-6; 30 mins Sexton pen 13-6; 37 mins Conan try, Sexton con 20-6; (half-time 20-6); 51 mins Sexton pen 23-6; 62 mins Sexton pen 26-6; 64 mins Youngs try 26-11; 69 mins Sexton pen 29-11; 74 mins Sexton pen 32-11; 79 mins May try, Daly con 32-18.
Ireland: Hugo Keenan; Keith Earls, Robbie Henshaw, Bundee Aki, Jacob Stockdale; Johnny Sexton (capt), Conor Murray; David Kilcoyne, Rob Herring, Tadhg Furlong; Iain Henderson, Tadhg Beirne; CJ Stander, Josh van der Flier, Jack Conan. Replacements: Cian Healy for Kilcoyne (20 mins), Ryan Baird for Henderson, Peter O'Mahony for van der Flier (both 64 mins), Andrew Porter for Furlong (68 mins), Ronan Kelleher for Herring (71 mins), Jordan Larmour for Stockdale (78 mins), Ross Byrne for Henshaw (79 mins). Not used: Jamison Gibson Park.
England: Elliot Daly; Anthony Watson, Ollie Lawrence, Owen Farrell, Jonny May; George Ford, Ben Youngs; Mako Vunipola, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Kyle Sinckler; Maro Itoje, Charlie Ewels; Mark Wilson, Tom Curry, Billy Vunipola. Replacements: Jamie George for Cowan-Dickie, Ellis Genge for M Vunipola (both half-time), Ben Earl for Wilson, Joe Marchant for Ford (both 51 mins), Jonny Hill for Ewels (56 mins), Dan Robson for Farrell (56 mins), George Martin for B Vunipola (64 mins), Will Stuart for Sinckler (65 mins).
Referee: Mathieu Raynal (France).