Ireland 29 England 16
After 128 years, this was almost worth the wait. A nervy crowd betrayed a nervy performance, but sparked into life as ever when drowning out Swing Low; they stayed with the team in the tough moments and the memorable ones. By the end, everyone could breathe easily, as seemingly 50,000 phones recorded the grandest of all Six Nations days to the backdrop of one last spine-tingling rendition of The Fields. One to show the grandchildren.
After a preceding run of 21 wins in 23 Tests, including a record 13 in a row at home, pretty much everybody outside of the English squad expected only one outcome. Ireland went into the game as 1-10 favourites, compared to the St Patrick’s Day finale in Twickenham five years ago, when they were evens to win that match.
This is still relatively new territory, totally out of keeping with much of the past. As they cement their ranking as the world’s number one side, watching this Irish team is becoming more and more what it must be like being a New Zealander watching the All Blacks.
Yet even they all but choked when luckily beating France 8-7 in the 2011 World Cup final in their Eden Park fortress to earn their first William Webb Ellis trophy since 1987.
No slam comes easy, and nearly every one of them comes with at least one off-colour display. Entering the final quarter, it was still a one-point game. Yet for this Irish team to again dig deep and find a way, as they do, amid such expectancy and in a “final”, will stand to them more than if they’d romped to victory without being ruffled.
As expected, Ireland played pretty much all the rugby and provided most of the game’s skilful and creative moments. They made 10 line breaks to England’s one. Yet they were mostly undone by wrong decisions or forced passes and offloads which didn’t go to hand — witness 18 handling errors to England’s eight.
As was also expected, England took something of a leaf out of South Africa’s manual by bringing plenty of line speed and physicality, while targeting Ireland’s breakdown, and kicked the leather off the ball. It is probably a template for what others will aspire to do, not least the Springboks themselves.
No less than the stress Ireland were put under, a warning of what’s to come may be no harm.
For the second year running in this fixture, England could claim a moral victory of sorts after suffering a first-half red card, albeit at opposite ends of the first period. Certainly, Freddie Steward’s sending off in first-half overtime for clattering into Hugo Keenan as he stooped to gather a loose offload by Mack Hansen, was the primary source of debate among the English media.
As his opposite number collided with him, Steward jumped and caught Keenan on the head with his elbow, although it wasn’t pointed. In slow motion, one could understand why Jaco Peyper decided it was a red card offence in, as he curiously put it himself, “the current climate”.
Viewed in real-time, it looked like Steward had turned to brace himself for contact, and in almost the blink of an eye, had little time to do anything else. True, Keenan had to go off for a HIA and did not return. Perhaps Steward should and could have been more careful. But there certainly seemed enough mitigation to brandish a yellow.
Against that, how on earth did Alex Dombrandt not receive a yellow card for a late, high, shoulder to the side of Johnny Sexton’s head? And had Steward not been red-carded, might Jack Willis have been brandished with more than a yellow card for lifting and tip-tackling Ross Byrne into the ground? Ben Curry was also fortunate not to be even penalised for a dangerous, late dive into Sexton’s knee.
In any event, as one suspected might happen, England’s desire to come out swinging ran the risk of them being over-zealous. Discipline is part of a winning side. Ireland’s is excellent, whereas England conceded 13 penalties to seven overall, many of which were avoidable, particularly among the 10 first-half infringements.
Cases in point were Maro Itoje grappling with Peter O’Mahony in the air after his lineout take to afford Ireland a relieving penalty, and Ellis Genge’s lazy tackle on Ryan Baird off the ball which led to Ireland’s opening try off a lineout.
Yes, England’s late consolation try off a rumbling catch-and-drive is very much a trademark of a Steve Borthwick side, along with plenty of kicking and non-forthcoming post-match utterances. But ultimately, Paul O’Connell’s work with Ireland’s lineout left a far more indelible mark on proceedings, leading to three of Ireland’s four tries.
It’s funny to think that some people questioned O’Connell’s appointment as forwards coach due to a relative lack of coaching experience. As some of us believed then, it has turned out to be a masterstroke by Farrell, along with many selection picks.
That perfectly executed first try looked to have identified an English vulnerability on the video and was straight off the training ground as the pack set up the maul only for the outstanding Josh van der Flier to break infield and slip Dan Sheehan through for an explosive finish.
In the second half Baird’s vital turnover penalty allowed Sexton’s perfectly executed crosskick to find grass for Jimmy O’Brien and Robbie Henshaw to hound Andrew Watson over the line. Resisting the temptation to play too wide too early against outnumbered opponents, Jamison Gibson-Park cleverly exploited the blindside for Bundee Aki to draw his man and put Robbie Henshaw over, the pain having been impenetrable in defence too. Aki, also the game’s leading carrier with 15 and the most metres (77), again proved what a big-game player he is.
As Gibson-Park again reloaded to the blindside and used Hansen’s distribution skills, Sheehan scored with his third blindside carry in a move off another lineout from Jack Conan’s offload of the match before Rob Herring struck from another maul in a manner akin to that third Test in Wellington.
🎶 Dublin in fine voice 🗣️#IREvENG | #SuperSaturday ⚡️ pic.twitter.com/l0MdDk5c5Y— Guinness Six Nations (@SixNationsRugby) March 18, 2023
Ultimately, as with the previous four victories, an abiding feeling was that Ireland could easily have won by more. That’s not a bad place to be.
SCORING SEQUENCE — 8 mins: Farrell pen 0-3; 15: Farrell pen 0-6; 19: Sexton pen 3-6; 33: Sheehan try, Sexton con 10-6; (half-time 10-6); 51: Farrell pen 10-9; 61: Henshaw try, Sexton con 17-9; 68: Herring try, Sexton con 24-9; 73: George try, Farrell con 24-16.
Hugo Keenan (Leinster); Mack Hansen (Connacht), Robbie Henshaw (Leinster, Bundee Aki (Connacht), James Lowe (Leinster); Johnny Sexton (Leinster, capt), Jamison Gibson-Park (Leinster); Andrew Porter (Leinster), Dan Sheehan (Leinster), Tadhg Furlong (Leinster); Ryan Baird (Leinster), James Ryan (Leinster); Peter O’Mahony (Munster), Josh van der Flier (Leinster), Caelan Doris (Leinster).
Replacements: Jimmy O’Brien (Leinster) for Keenan (40+4 mins), Jack Conan (Leinster) for O’Mahony (56, Tom O’Toole (Ulster) for Furlong (59), Rob Herring (Ulster) for Sheehan (70), Conor Murray (Munster) for Gibson-Park and Ross Byrne (Leinster) for Sexton (74), Kieran Treadwell (Ulster) for Baird (75).
Freddie Steward (Leicester); Anthony Watson (Leicester), Henry Slade (Exerer), Manu Tuilagi (Sale), Henry Arundell (London Irish); Owen Farrell (Saracens, capt), Jack van Poortvliet (Leicester); Ellis Genge (Bristol), Jamie George (Saracens), Kyle Sinckler (Bristol); Maro Itoje (Saracens), David Ribbans (Northampton); Lewis Ludlam (Northampton), Jack Willis (Toulouse), Alex Dombrandt (Harlequins).
Replacements: Ben Curry (Sale) for Willis (53 mins), Joe Marchant (Harlequins) for Arundel (59), Mako Vunipola (Saracens) for Genge (64), Jack Willis for Dombrandt (65 mins), Dan Cole (Leicester) for Sinckler (68), Nick Isiekwe (Saracens) for Ribbans and Alex Mitchell (Northampton) for Van Poortvliet (both 70 mins).
Not used: Jack Walker (Harlequins), Marcus Smith (Harlequins).
Red card: Steward (40 (+3) mins. Yellow card: Willis (76 mins).
Referee: Jaco Peyper (South Africa).