Ireland clinch Six Nations Grand Slam as 14-man England are overwhelmed in Dublin
reland put on the real holiday parade with a 29-16 win over England at 14 to seal their maiden Grand Slam in Dublin.
The streets of the Irish capital were flooded with traditional St. Patrick’s Day floats on Friday, but Aviva Stadium hosted the real procession a day later.
Captain Johnny Sexton led Ireland to their fourth competitive sweep, and their first at home since the 1948 triumph in Belfast.
Freddie Steward’s red card at half-time undoubtedly helped Ireland through on a day when nervousness set in early and was only dismissed at the hour mark .
Ryan Baird’s monster turnover on Ellis Genge set off the chain of events for Robbie Henshaw to power home and seal the second Grand Slam in five years.
Hooker Dan Sheehan claimed two tries, substitute Rob Herring also got in on the act and Sexton finished with 12 points – for an all-time Six Nations record 569.
And that’s where his Six Nations run will remain given his impending retirement after the World Cup. The 37-year-old still looks at the peak of his powers in Andy Farrell’s masterful setup.
St Patrick found his niche as a scout for Ireland, but in Farrell and Sexton the national Test team finally found his cultured and educated side.
England’s obscurity has lifted somewhat from France’s nadir last weekend, but their attack still needs a Damascene moment to allow Steve Borthwick’s side to reach the peaks of Ireland. England actually finished the game with 13 men, with a yellow card from Jack Willis.
Borthwick’s men have certainly restored the pride and integrity of the England shirt after last weekend’s record 53-10 home defeat to France. But the Red Rose is simply not at the level of the Irish world n°1.
Head Coach Farrell leaned on the shoulders of his predecessor Joe Schmidt, adding stardust of industry and ingenuity without losing rigor and discipline. Ireland have so often peaked between World Cups, but this group soaked up all the pressure of that Grand Slam game and still delivered despite nerves.
Delivering under such circumstances will only boost the confidence of the Irish to break their psychological barrier in the quarter-finals of the World Cup for the first time in the fall.
For England, a lot is still possible. But right now, even a normal performance at the World Cup still seems like a tall order. England have defended with zeal and attacked with determination since the start of the day, especially in contrast to last weekend’s French debacle.
The improvements weren’t enough to crack Ireland’s defensive code, however, and a 15-phase attack died out for a penalty. Owen Farrell netted all three but England badly needed a try at the time to have a chance of a surprise win.
An uncharacteristically tense Ireland had spent the first quarter missing visits to England’s 22, four in fact. Andy Farrell’s men probably made more errors in the opposition 22 in the first 20 minutes here than at any other time in the tournament.
However, England finally cracked, and thanks to a series of cheap penalties that allowed the hosts to strengthen the ground. When hooker Sheehan exploded in the middle of the England defense after a lineout, the Aviva cried out in relief and joy.
When full-back Steward was sent off for his entanglement with counterpart Hugo Keenan, the whole pitch went silent. An air of confusion clung to the crisp air, as the Irish wanted to celebrate their power play and England were almost too bewildered to express their anger at the decision.
The laws of head contact leading to red cards still allow for rugby incidents, or in other words hard to avoid contact. Steward’s upper arm connected to Keenan’s head, as the Ireland full-back ducked down to catch a loose ball.
The Leicester star appeared to have done what he could to minimize contact in a short time to readjust. Referee Jaco Peyper and his aides disagreed, however, and Steward was given his marching orders.
James Lowe made a clear effort to console Steward as he walked off the pitch, in a move that speaks volumes about his view of the incident. Keenan failed his head injury assessment (HIA) in the meantime, so he didn’t return for the second half.
Ireland could have expected to warm up after the break, but the nervousness persisted. England even reduced the lead to one point, to 10-9 as Farrell netted his third goal after the visitors won a scrimmage penalty.
But when Henshaw stormed home just after the hour mark following that Baird turnover, Ireland was on the march to glory. Sheehan ran for his second try minutes later to add another seal to the triumph, and now the crowd was well and truly in party mode.
England, however, refused to back down and a searing maul gave a memorable try for Saracen hooker Jamie George. Willis’ yellow card for knocking down Ross Byrne again hampered England, with Herring stretching for the line for Ireland’s fourth try to seal the win.
Ireland will evolve smoothly into a World Cup of hope and expectation. For England, the quest for personality and identity continues.