Late tries from Jack Conan and Finlay Bealham kept Ireland’s title hopes alive and sealed a thrilling victory away at 14-man England in an instant Guinness Six Nations classic.
The replacements scored a try each in the final seven minutes to deny England a fabulous comeback after they worked their way back into the game following Charlie Ewels’ early red card.
Ewels was sent for an early shower in just the second minute and that threatened to make this a non-contest, with Ireland scoring first-half tries through James Lowe and Hugo Keenan.
But England worked tirelessly and Marcus Smith kicked five penalties to help level the game at 15-15 with ten minutes remaining, before Ireland kept their cool and ruthlessly made their man advantage count.
They now have to beat Scotland at the Aviva Stadium next Saturday and hope England do them a favour by denying France the Grand Slam.
EARLY RED PUTS ENGLAND ON BACK FOOT
Eddie Jones compared this match to a semi-final in the build-up, with a winner-takes-all contest against France awaiting England should they come through.
But their chances of success were severely dented after just 82 seconds when Ewels was sent off for a high tackle on James Ryan.
Sexton knocked through the resulting penalty and Ireland then took advantage of a stunned England by scoring their first try two minutes later.
Dan Sheehan’s pass put Josh van der Flier through a gap and the flanker offloaded to Lowe, who sprinted in for the try down the left.
Twickenham was stunned, with Ireland’s legion of travelling fans making all the noise. And the visitors, keen to kill off England while they adjusted to Ewels’ red card, so nearly scored a second try in the 12th minute as Caelan Doris barrelled through Harry Randall in the corner, only for TMO to spot a knock-on a couple of phases earlier.
To compound England’s miserable start, flanker Tom Curry limped off with an injury. But they began to adjust to being a man down and found success at the scrum, while Smith trimmed Ireland’s eight-point lead to five with a penalty.
England then threatened to take the lead, as they kicked a penalty to the Ireland five-metre line and won the subsequent lineout. But just as Jamie George went to take the ball out of the maul, Tadhg Furlong knocked it from his grasp and sparked an Ireland counter-attack.
Smith then had two kicks at goal within a couple of minutes, missing one and making the other to cut the gap to just two points – before Ireland then stretched it to nine.
Jamison Gibson-Park’s quick penalty five metres out caught England napping and he fizzed a pass into the chest of Keenan, who took the ball in stride and powered over for their second try.
Smith’s third successful penalty closed out the half, with Ireland 15-9 to the good but unable to fully make their man advantage count.
IRELAND SURVIVE SCARE
As the clouds darkened, the atmosphere came alive as a crowd increasing in belief reacted to every turning point that went in England’s favour.
Jamie George and Ellis Genge both won scrum penalties, Maro Itoje chased a Randall box-kick and timed his tackle on Sexton to perfection and Smith kicked his fourth penalty of the game to cut the gap to three points. By the hour-mark, everyone in white sensed an unlikely victory.
A fifth scrum penalty under the posts allowed Smith to level the score at 15-15 and Sexton responded by gathering his players in a huddle to try and re-organise.
Ireland needed to take the wind out of England’s sails and Andrew Conway helped to do just that with a brilliant kick deep into England territory.
Ireland won the lineout and laid siege to England’s defence. They looked certain to score a try until Freddie Steward intercepted a flat pass out wide and galloped clear, with the tryline in sight – until the referee called play back for an Ireland advantage.
Sexton clipped the penalty through from in front of the posts and Ireland could have put the game to bed with 12 minutes left as Hugo Keenan scampered between two tackles and found Doris, who had the simple task of putting in Conor Murray – but the scrum-half could not control the pass and spilled it forward.
Ireland did not have long to wait for their third try, though, as Conan bulldozed his way between two defenders to dot down, and Sexton added the conversion to make it 25-15.
And four minutes later, prop Bealham burrowed over at the bottom of a pile of bodies to seal the win.