Six NationsMatch Report

Marcus Smith’s last-gasp drop goal ends Ireland’s hopes of Grand Slam repeat

Steve Borthwick’s team played with a fervour and ambition that Twickenham has not seen for a long time

Six Nations: England 23 Ireland 22

There’s a reason why back-to-back Grand Slams are so rare, never mind Slams themselves, and this dramatic evening in Twickenham underlined why this is so. The sight of the much lauded and the Six Nations’ dominant force in the last two seasons, combined with a critical off-field soundtrack, inspired the best English performance at Twickenham in years.

The result was a deserving win for England courtesy of Marcus Smith’s drop goal in overtime, thus ending Ireland’s greatest chance ever of back to back Slams and ensuring that, in the next few days anyway, a shot at the consolation prize of retaining their Six Nations title will feel a little hollow.

Steve Borthwick’s team played with a fervour, ambition, width and, perhaps most of all, accuracy, to frequently unsettle the Irish defence and augment their greater oomph in their carries and collisions.

There appeared to be a foot in touch in the build-up to one of the English tries but Ireland couldn’t have any real complaints. They were outscored by three tries to two and had something of an off-day in both defence and attack. Josh van der Flier had a huge game, as did Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw in midfield, but some of their big carriers, like Dan Sheehan and Joe McCarthy, didn’t feature as they normally do.


While there was perhaps a deceptive if inconsistent breeze behind England’s backs in the first half, conditions could hardly have been more favourable for a game of rugby at this time of the year.

As well as the breeze, there was also plenty of intent with England in that first half as well, which, importantly, led to an early reward which instilled them with belief.

Ireland had started well, the excellent Van der Flier sniping up the guts and offloading the supporting Tadhg Furlong for a strong carry and Jack Crowley opened the scoring with a straightish 35-metre penalty when Ellis Genge was offside.

England struck from James Lowe’s ensuing clearance kick off the restart. George Furbank ran a good counterattacking line infield and linked with Tommy Freeman. Calvin Nash made a good read but took the full brunt of the English winger on the head. From the recycle Ireland were discommoded, and good hands by Alex Mitchell and Goerge Ford gave England a two-on-one against Crowley for Henry Slade to give Ollie Lawrence a clear run along the left touchline to the corner.

It was the first time Ireland had fallen behind in this Six Nations and although Ford missed the conversion, he extended England’s lead with a penalty, which was the least they deserved.

Nash went off for an HIA which he failed, meaning Ciarán Frawley came on at the wing, although it wasn’t long before he switched to fullback with Hugo Keenan moving to the right wing.

Ireland looked rattled and missed 10 tackles in the opening quarter, as when Ben Earl beat Caelan Doris in the middle of the pitch, while England were always winning the collisions and the gainline. But Van der Flier and Tadhg Beirne won vital turnovers either side of Mitchell knocking on close to the line.

The ubiquitous Van der Flier also charged down an attempted drop goal by Ford before Ireland had an escape when another Lawrence ‘try’ was ruled out after video replays clearly showed that Furbank had nudged the ball forward when contesting Lawrence’s bouncing chip.

Instead Crowley trimmed England’s lead to two points when Lawrence was offside in going for a jackal and after a couple of good aerial takes by Frawley, Henshaw tackled Ollie Chessum before Aki won a penalty in the jackal. Crowley drilled the 46-metre penalty into the breeze, the ball clearing the bar by inches.

Ireland needed a good defensive maul and good defensive work by Henshaw and Keenan to repel England again, and a booming 60-metre kick by Lowe was caught by Furbank but with his foot on the touchline. Aki was launched up the middle again, and a deft offload by Doris for Peter O’Mahony to make inroads led to a penalty for offside.

So, somehow, Crowley’s fourth penalty sealed a 12-8 lead for Ireland at the break.

Furthermore, they sprung into life after more good work by Van der Flier at the breakdown helped earn a relieving penalty. Keenan brilliantly reclaimed a Jamison Gibson-Park box kick and from the recycle Crowley saw Furbank shooting up and delayed his pass to send Doris away, before Aki, Henshaw and Frawley combining for Lowe to finish a brilliant try in the corner.

However, far from that being the signal for Ireland to pull clear, their defence immediately became disconnected and dog-legged as McCarthy shot up and tried to cover two men, with Furlong exposed outside him, as George Martin and Maro Itoje combined to give Furbank a clear run to the corner outside Frawley.

The latter went off for an HIA which he did not pass, meaning Conor Murray came on and Gibson-Park moved to right wing. Worse still for Ireland a stolen lineout was augmented by another Earl line break and though O’Mahony made the covering tackle he was pinged and binned for then going off his feet.

England laid siege and although the first wave was repelled thanks to a good read by Gibson-Park, a snipe by Mitchell and big carry by Chessum led to a good, close-range finish by Earl which the newly introduced Smith converted to put England 20-17 in front.

Ireland were behind for a second time and the game lost flow amid the customary raft of replacements.

But, restored to 15 men when Ryan Baird replaced O’Mahony, Andrew Porter won a vital penalty with his last act of the match and Crowley found a superb touch to within 10 metres of the line. Aki fed Henshaw with a variation on the launch play and two phases later Iain Henderson pivoted for Crowley and Gibson-Park to enable Lowe plough through Smith and finish in the same corner.

Crucially, Crowley could not land the touchline conversion, and home team and crowd roused themselves one last time. Swing Low fairly reverberated around Twickenham entering the last minute with an English lineout 40 metres out and Immanuel Feyi-Waboso took Aki’s tackle by the touchline to make inroads.

With a penalty advantage, England laid siege again, and big carries by Alex Dombrandt and Furbank set up Smith in front of the posts and despite slipping, he landed the drop goal with the clock in the red.

SCORING SEQUENCE – 3 mins: Crowley pen 0-3; 5: Lawrence try 5-3; 17: Ford pen 8-3; 20: Crowley pen 8-6; 35: Crowley pen 8-9; 40: Crowley pen 8-12; (half-time 8-12); 44: Lowe try 8-17; 48: Furbank try 13-17; 60: Earl try, Smith con 20-17; 73: Lowe try 20-22.

ENGLAND: George Furbank (Northampton); Immanuel Feyi-Waboso (Exeter), Henry Slade (Exeter), Ollie Lawrence (Bath), Tommy Freeman (Northampton; George Ford (Sale), Alex Mitchell (Northampton); Ellis Genge (Bristol), Jamie George (Saracens, capt), Dan Cole (Leicester); Maro Itoje (Saracens), George Martin (Leicester); Ollie Chessum (Leicester), Sam Underhill (Bath), Ben Earl (Saracens).

Replacements: Theo Dan (Saracens) for George, Joe Marler (Harlequins) for Genge, Will Stuart (Bath) for Cole (all 54 mins), Marcus Smith (Harlequins) for Ford (59), Chandler Cunningham-South (Harlequins) for Underhill (61), Alex Dombrandt (Harlequins) for Chessum, Danny Care (Harlequins) for Mitchell, Elliot Daly (Saracens) for Slade (all 65).

IRELAND: Hugo Keenan (Leinster); Calvin Nash (Munster), Robbie Henshaw (Leinster), Bundee Aki (Connacht), James Lowe (Leinster); Jack Crowley (Munster), Jamison Gibson-Park (Leinster); Andrew Porter (Leinster), Dan Sheehan (Leinster), Tadhg Furlong (Leinster); Joe McCarthy (Leinster), Tadhg Beirne (Munster); Peter O’Mahony (Munster, capt), Josh van der Flier (Leinster), Caelan Doris (Leinster).

Replacements: Ciarán Frawley (Leinster) for Nash (6 mins), Conor Murray (Munster) for Frawley (51), Ronan Kelleher (Leinster) for Sheehan, Finlay Bealham (Connacht) for Furlong, Iain Henderson (Ulster) for McCarthy, Jack Conan (Leinster) for Van der Flier (all 61), Ryan Baird (Leinster) for O’Mahony (69), Cian Healy (Leinster) for Porter (71).

Referee: Nika Amashukeli (Geo).

Assistant Referees: Andrea Piardi (Italy), Craig Evans (Wales).

TMO: Ben Whitehouse (Wales).

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times