The gladiatorial roar at the full-time whistle from Paul O’Connell told you everything there was to know about the way this contest unfolded. England rolled into Dublin with their Grand Slam dream intact. By the end of the game, that dream had been smashed into a thousand pieces by a dominant Irish display.
While Wales may have something to say about it, these two are the best that the Northern Hemisphere has to offer ahead of the World Cup in September and October. This was a chance to put down a marker, to establish yourself as Europe’s top dog. Aside from a shaky, possibly complacent final 15 minutes, Ireland did just that.
The Aviva Stadium, the rebuilt Lansdowne Road, lacks the Colosseum-like atmosphere that these clashes at Croke Park generated, but the locals found their voice at the full-time whistle – knowing that they had put their old rivals to the sword.
Both sides entered knowing that for one, the Grand Slam dream at the end of the rainbow would slip away. A 2003 Grand Slam, the only one England have achieved in the Six Nations, proved the catalyst for a World Cup win and to leave Dublin with that ambition taken away is a blow to the building momentum that had surrounded Stuart Lancaster’s side.
For Ireland, the Grand Slam is now less of a dream, more of an expectation with Wales in Cardiff in two weeks time looking like the only stumbling block. They had beaten England for the first time in five Six Nations matches and Joe Schmidt’s side, marshalled by the imperious Johnny Sexton, look like every inch World Cup contenders.
England started poorly and never really got going. Ineffectual kick off and sloppy play from Ford at the breakdown, an offside against Haskell and Ireland were three up inside two minutes as Johnny Sexton struck the penalty against the backdrop of trademark Dublin silence.
Stuart Lancaster’s men have conceded more points than any other in this Championship inside the first 15 minutes and Ireland firmly turned the screw. England’s resilient defence repelled two attacks from five-metre scrums and would have been delighted to only have conceded another penalty as Ireland stretched their lead to six.
Foothold needed and foothold gained, George Ford cut the deficit back to three with a 12th minute drop goal but England failed to take advantage of a prolonged spell inside Irish territory, including a missed penalty and the decision to kick to the corner rather than leveling the scores, before Sexton stretched the lead back to six just before the half hour mark.
Time and time again Ireland won the battle of the breakdown, forcing turnover ball and driving England back inside their own half. Craig Joubert’s whistle brought an end to an engaging half dominated by Ireland, but England would have been pleased to come away trailing just 9-3.
The second half began in much the same vain as the first half had gone, with Ireland on top. Another penalty conceded by England and the lead stretched to nine. Their kicking game was far more cultured and it paid off after 53 minutes when Connor Murray’s high ball into the corner was claimed by Robbie Henshaw, who slammed the ball down for an Ireland try. A superb touchline conversion from Sexton followed to rack up a seemingly insurmountable 19-3 lead.
Two Ford penalties offered a glimmer and that glimmer started to erupt into a flame as England piled on the pressure to an Ireland side who perhaps thought they had it won. At 19-9, the scoreline reflected their overall dominance.
Ireland were better than England in every department. Stronger, faster, more inventive and with a much more intelligent kicking game, this was a wake up call for Lancaster’s men who need to find more cutting edge to go with their determined play.
Not A Great Spectacle
This wasn’t a brilliant game littered with flowing running rugby. There weren’t numerous gain-line breaks or ingenious offloads. It was nevertheless a pulsating, engaging encounter. This was a Dublin dogfight, the kind of scrap that usually brings out the best in this England side but it will perhaps concern Lancaster most that in a game of this nature, they were outfought.
It was perhaps a mark of the lack of precision in England’s game that a late Jack Nowell try was ruled out for a forward pass. Ireland have equalled their best ever haul of ten consecutive international wins and march on in pursuit of the Grand Slam – the Six Nations’ Holy Grail.