AVIVA STADIUM — Ireland deserve the plaudits as Grand Slam champions – they were the best team in this Six Nations, by a narrow margin ahead of France. Yet they were forced into the shakiest performance of their clean sweep by a resurgent England in Dublin.
In hooker Dan Sheehan, the Irish had a double try scorer whose galloping finishes raised misty-eyed memories of former hero in Keith Wood – one from a superb line-out set move in the first half, the other on the end of a great sequence of handling in the second.
To England, there must be congratulations, mixed with relief for all their worried supporters, as they rediscovered some pride. They played like a proper Test team again after the utter debacle of the previous week’s record home hammering by France.
And so it went for England, who had charged into the Irish with the backlash fervour of a wounded beast for large parts of the first half, a week on from the 53-10 shame of Twickenham.
It was all nip and tuck, with no clear sign of an England try, but Ireland were mostly frustrated too.
Freddie Steward’s red card on the stroke of half time changed the game. As an Irish attack fizzled out into a pass lost forward, Hugo Keenan leaned forward to scoop it up, off balance. As the full-back’s opposite number turned to avoid contact, the Irishman’s head collided with Steward’s upper arm.
Steward, surely, had simply bailed out on the play – but as the South African duo of referee Jaco Peyper and television match official Marius Jonker ran through the replays they could only see the Englishman with a “clear line of sight, use of force, direct contact to the head”.
And under the terms of the head-contact framework, that is a red card – but, yet again in a big match, a regulation designed to protect players’ welfare, while lacking a subjective feel for split-second misjudgements and absence of intent, changed the entire picture.
Keenan went off and stayed off (replaced by Jimmy O’Brien), and naturally many will say it was justice for Steward to suffer the same fate.
And if the argument is that Steward is a professional player who knows the risks and should have avoided any collision then, fine, hang him out to dry.
But the question prompted by that line of logic is… if it was so obvious for him to avoid it, why didn’t he?
So Ireland, crucially, were one man up as they led 10-6 at the end of that first half, having trailed by six in the first 15 minutes. England got their act together at the breakdown, combining in twos and threes instead of getting isolated, and building phases in double figures.
Then Johnny Sexton’s penalty on 18 minutes gave the 37-year-old fly-half the outright Six Nations scoring record, moving three ahead of Ronan O’Gara’s old mark of 557.
In the 33rd minute, a brilliant set move from a line-out carved England open, with Sheehan belting over from Josh van der Flier’s inside pass around the tail.
Farrell had a third penalty goal for a scrum offence, but the numbers game was always going to hurt England.
From a rare platform of a steady scrum on 59 minutes, Sexton launched a long cross-kick, and Anthony Watson, now covering wing and full-back, was forced over his own line.
The resulting scrum led to a couple of phases into midfield and back, and Ireland’s centre Robbie Henshaw cantering through the almost inevitable gap: 17-9.
Sheehan’s second try was followed by Jamie George from a maul at the other end, then Jack Willis had a yellow card for a tip tackle, and Ireland finally settled all nerves with Sheehan’s replacement Rob Herring going in at the corner.
Ireland’s run of success continues now adds up to 10 wins in a row, and just two losses in 24 Tests since February 2021.
At that time there were doubts over whether Andy Farrell was the right head coach, but there were 50,000-plus supporters rocking at the final whistle here, going mad for the Wiganer with Irish heritage.
This was Ireland’s first Slam secured in Dublin, to go with Belfast in 1948, Cardiff 2009 and Twickenham 2018.
“This is what you dream of, as a kid,” said Sexton as the NFL-style presentation podium was pieced together on the halfway line.
And the success will send the Irish to the World Cup later this year believing this is their strongest squad, ever.
As for England, they must try to build on this, through the warm-up Tests in August against Wales (away and home), Ireland back here in Dublin, and Fiji at Twickenham.
The Six Nations title winners in 2016, 2017 and 2020 have now finished a thoroughly underwhelming fifth, third and fourth in successive seasons, winning six of their last 15 Six Nations matches – three of them against Italy.
But if they can get some of the 2019 World Cup final band back together – the likes of the injured Courtney Lawes, Tom Curry and Elliot Daly – they have at least a shot at making a dent in France in September and October.