Amid the unbearable tension of a ferocious Grand Slam decider, Ireland needed one man and one play to change the course of a game that in danger of drifting away. Step forwards Johnny Sexton.
With England a man down after Freddie Steward’s 40th-minute sending off, Ireland had the cards stacked heavily in their favour. But in a jittery performance on a nervy afternoon, they struggled mightily and England played with enough heart and attitude to suggest one of the biggest shocks in Championship history was actually on.
But cometh the hour, cometh the man. With Ireland 10-9 up and inside England’s half, Sexton spotted space in behind Anthony Watson to the right and unleashed a devilishly good crossfield kick that exploded off his foot, pitched 10 metres from the try line and spat like a leg-break.
Watson was powerless. He was swarmed upon as soon as he gathered the ball and coughed up an Ireland five-metre scrum that Robbie Henshaw converted into the all-important try.
Sexton landed the conversion, and that was goodnight England and hello Grand Slam – Ireland’s fourth ever and their first secured in Dublin, the 29-16 final score complete with another bonus-point.
Hooker Dan Sheehan bookended Henshaw’s try with two of his own, Rob Herring adding the fourth late on, while Jamie George added an England consolation late in the game.
But this was all about Ireland, and all about Sexton, who must now be considered alongside Willie John McBride and Brian O’Driscoll as Ireland’s all-time great.
In his final Guinness Six Nations match, he became the Championship’s all-time record points scorer and stood up when it mattered.
Up until that point, England were in the game despite Steward’s red card for a dangerous tackle. They responded brilliantly to last week’s hammering at the hands of France and made this a game.
But in the end Ireland were too strong and Sexton was too good.
ENGLAND RATTLE TENSE IRELAND
After France held up their end of the bargain with a bonus-point win against Wales, Ireland knew they had to do this the hard way.
And any hope that England would roll over as they did in Round 4 was quickly dashed by an impressive start.
Steve Borthwick promised England would respond to their record home defeat and they immediately set after Ireland, hitting hard with the ball and in the ruck.
Manu Tuilagi, restored to England’s XV in place of an injured Ollie Lawrence, started today with a 100% winning record against Ireland, and when he mowed over Bundee Aki with the type of carry that has become his signature, there was a notable hush in the stands.
Farrell kicked the first points of the game in the seventh minute with a chip from in front of the posts after an impressive spell of possession in the 22, a deserved lead after a strong start.
Ireland were understandably nervous but almost bounced back immediately, as Sexton tried to catch England cold with a quick tap-and-go from the five-metre line and was only denied a try by some desperate defence over the line.
Ireland’s frustration inside the England 22 was a theme of the first 20 minutes, with too many passes not going to hand and a pair of knock-ons. England, clean and assured, took advantage at the other end as Farrell kicked his second penalty to make it 6-0.
Ireland were in need of a response and they got one just four minutes later, as a Keenan break in midfield stretched England’s defence, forced a breakdown error and set up Sexton to become the all-time Championship points scorer with a penalty.
The game’s ferocious pace continued, with some desperate Ireland defence forcing Tuilagi into touch just five minutes after, while a late Alex Dombrandt tackle on Sexton led to an Ireland attack in England’s half that ended with a knock-on from James Ryan.
As the half wore on, Ireland notably grew increasingly comfortable and they scored the first try of the match with six minutes to go before the break.
From a lineout in the 22, hooker Sheehan threw deep to Ryan, who in turn handed to Josh van der Flier. The flanker, spotting a gap, broke off the back of the maul, ran at England and popped a pass inside to Sheehan, who ran a brilliant supporting line, and galloped into clear green grass before sliding over the line.
That seemed to settle the nerves and Ireland started to win the breakdown arm wrestle, with England’s penalty count increasing.
Henry Arundell, handed his first England start on the wing, hardly touched the ball in the first half but got a crash course in Guinness Six Nations rugby when he was swarmed on the left, wrapped up and ultimately turned over.
It was another sign of Ireland’s increasing influence, and the game turned decisively in their favour just before half time when a loose ball inside England’s 22 fell between Keenan and Steward.
The Irishman got there first and Steward, unable to pull out of the tackle, collided into his opposing full-back, with his elbow leaning into Keenan’s head. Referee Jaco Peyper, after consulting the TMO, sent him off and England were on the back foot.
An impressive defensive stand on their own five-metre line prevented Ireland from stretching their 10-6 lead. But against the world’s number one side, the dye was cast.
HENSHAW AND HERRING SEAL THE DEAL
With nothing to lose, England had freedom in the second half while the red card was an unhelpful wrinkle Ireland could probably have done without – even if numerically it suited them.
England came straight for their hosts after the break, charging around with an increased intensity and ploughing into contact harder than before, as they started to impose themselves. With that came a healthy amount of time in Ireland’s half and a scrum penalty in the 50th minute saw the visitors celebrate like they had won the game.
Farrell, who has struggled from the kicking tee in this Championship, was perfect from 30 metres and all of a sudden, Ireland’s lead was cut to a single point and the butterflies returned.
The sloppiness of the first 20 minutes returned for Ireland, as Peter O’Mahony knocked on at a lineout. Even the stadium announcer was having an off day, calling the score the wrong way round and declaring England were ahead. A prophecy? As it turned out, absolutely not.
After Sexton’s game-changing cross-field kick, Ireland had a five-metre scrum. Off the back of it, Aki slipped the ball inside to Henshaw to dive over the line, and just seven minutes later Sheehan added his second after some sensational hands in the right corner.
Jamie George hauled himself over after a maul to score a deserved England try but Rob Herring, on for Sheehan, completed Ireland’s win late on to get the party started in Dublin.
It was the cherry on top of the cake.