Ireland 29 – 16 England
Belfast in 1948, Cardiff in 2009, and Twickenham in 2018. Now you can add Dublin 2023 to the list, as Ireland finally sealed a Grand Slam in their capital, sparking scenes of delirious jubilation. They were made to work for it by a dogged English side who relished spoiling the occasion in the first half. But Freddie Steward’s red card on the stroke of halftime firmly tipped the scales in the home side’s favour, and second-half tries from Dan Sheehan, Robbie Henshaw, and Rob Herring broke England’s resistance. It wasn’t Ireland’s most fluent display, but they eventually conquered their nerves in a tense contest, able to produce a score when needed. Andy Farrell’s side has the mettle to match the magic; they are a truly special group of players.
England restored their pride with an impressive, gutsy display after their mauling by France. They were robust in the contact area and aggressive at the breakdown, showing an intensity that unnerved Ireland for periods in the first half. However, Steward’s red card left them on the back foot for the second half, and Ireland’s superior fitness shone through in the last twenty minutes as they put England to the sword.
Was it a red card? Jacob Peyper’s decision was met with a slew of criticism from ex-players, with Matt Dawson being particularly vocal. Steward was dreadfully unlucky, catching Hugo Keenan’s head with his elbow when turning away to protect himself. The rule book binds Peyper, but there needs to be some dialogue between players and lawmakers. Safety is paramount, but sometimes common sense needs to prevail. Either way, Ireland would likely have won even if Steward remained on the field; they always find a way to win.
An electric atmosphere greeted both sides to the field, and there were encouraging early signs from England, getting off the line energetically in defence while Jack Willis made himself a menace at the breakdown. Ball in hand, England’s forwards carried hard, showing a vigour that was absent against France. More importantly, England were generating quick ball, and after a prolonged spell of possession, Irish ill-discipline allowed Owen Farrell to give England a deserved lead. Ireland roared back, but England’s defence was equal to the task, Willis felling his opposite number Van der Flier with a superb tackle when a try looked on the cards. Ireland were turning down shots at goal, a sign of intent, and Jonny Sexton almost powered over from a quick tap, just held up by Farrell and Alex Dombrandt.
Ireland were looky a little nervy, and some uncharacteristic errors were creeping into their play, with Mack Hansen shanking a clearance kick. Farrell extended England’s advantage with another penalty as the visitors started to look settled. Ireland’s clinical edge appeared to be deserting them when they needed it most, with England scrambling well after a typically incisive break from Keenan. Sexton finally decided to take a shot at goal, slotting over the three points to get Ireland on the board. England were soon testing Ireland’s defence again after Keenan’s wayward clearance kick, England’s defence creating opportunities.
Despite their periods of possession, England could never truly stretch Ireland’s defence, and it felt like a matter of time before the hosts made them pay. In the end, it was a soft try for England to concede, van der Flier peeling off the back of a maul and feeding Sheehan on his inside, the hooker showing impressive wheels to blast through the gap and score. With Ireland in the lead, England needed to see out the half and regroup, but Steward’s red card with the clock in the red changed everything. The full-back trudged off to the audible shock of his captain and England’s mountain went from steep to virtually insurmountable.Embed from Getty Images
Ireland’s tactics were obvious as soon as the second half began, with Sexton immediately putting in a crossfield kick, looking to target the extra space. Down to fourteen, England were forced to be pragmatic but needed to be wary with their kicking game, a point Jamieson Gibson-Park rammed home with a chip and chase after Farrell had put up a bomb with only Lewis Ludlam chasing. However, England survived, and Farrell started conducting things nicely, aided by an excellent kick chase led by the vibrant Anthony Watson. England were turning the match into a dogfight, scrapping hard and forcing errors, while their scrum was starting to get on top. A Farrell penalty in the fiftieth minute made it a one-point game, ratcheting up the tension.
However, Ireland have proven themselves to be adept problem solvers throughout the championship, and with the hour approaching, they forged a crucial breakthrough. Poor Joe Marchant had barely been on the field a second, than Sexton was putting in a horrible crossfield kick that bisected him and Watson, Ireland winning a five-metre scrum. It felt like a crucial moment in the match, and typically, Ireland delivered a powerful scrum resulting in Bundee Aki feeding his centre partner Henshaw to go over. Sexton nailed the conversion, nudging Ireland beyond a score, and there looked to be no way back for England.
Ireland soon had their third try, exposing England on the short side with some neat hands from Jack Conan freeing Sheehan to go over in the corner. But England never gave up, and Jamie George went over for a deserved try after a surging England maul from just inside the 22. However, they could never get close to Ireland, and when Willis was yellow-carded for an overzealous clear-out, England were forced to see out the game with thirteen men. Replacement Rob Herring’s try from the back of a maul was the cherry on the cake as the final whistle kickstarted an almighty party throughout the capital.Embed from Getty Images
For Ireland, the Grand Slam feels like a launch pad for the World Cup; there’s a hunger in this group that will only be satisfied by lifting the ultimate prize in France later this year. Ireland have been tested in this championship, and like champions, they have repeatedly come up with answers. Where are the weaknesses in this Irish side? Ireland will look to emulate England in 2003, who followed their overdue slam success by lifting the World Cup in Australia. For now, Ireland can bask in their success, and it was a particularly fitting tribute for Jonny Sexton, a true great of Irish rugby playing in his final Six Nations match. Sexton’s shown a resolve and longevity to match his immense skill level, and he’ll already be eagerly eyeing up the World Cup.
England restored some of the pride that had been so severely dented against France, playing with much greater vigour and intensity. They made life difficult for Ireland in the first half, and Steve Borthwick would have been greatly heartened by the fight his side showed. However, have England really progressed at all since sacking Eddie Jones? England’s attack rarely alarmed Ireland’s defence, and the debate on who should play fly half looks set to rage on all the way to France. Borthwick would have learnt a lot about his side in the last two weeks, but there is little time to solve problems or implement change.