Ireland vs England match report: Ireland battle England into submission to remain on course for Grand Slam triumph

Ireland 19 England 9

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England must have known the aerial bombardment was coming – anyone surprised by the poise and precision of a kicking game administered by half-backs as good as Jonathan Sexton and Conor Murray would also have been shocked to learn that Pope is a Roman Catholic – but they did not for a second understand how to deal with it. They fiddled and fumbled their way to a chastening defeat and as a consequence, Ireland are the last team standing in the race for a Grand Slam in World Cup year.

For a while in the third quarter of another bare-knuckled contest on Irish rugby’s holiest rectangle of turf, a game that had been billed as too close to call became too easy for words. Paul O’Connell’s men, as super-smart in the tactical department as they were ferocious in their physicality, were 19-3 up and cruising towards an unexpectedly comprehensive victory. England? They were bemused, bothered, bewildered and all over the shop.

Yet at the last knockings, they somehow found a way of making Ireland sweat a little. George Ford banged over a couple of penalties as the England forwards finally exerted some control at close quarters and had referee Craig Joubert not pulled them up for an accidental offside deep in the green-shirted red zone, they would almost certainly have cut the deficit to three points with 10 minutes left.

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Jonathan Sexton successfully converts a penalty

But let us be clear: an English triumph today would have been a travesty. They were outmuscled on the floor, finished a distant second at the line-out at the most important moments and were not even that close when it came to the kicking strategy, all of which led to costly breakdowns in discipline. Only when Sexton, the international game’s  finest practitioner of the outside-half’s art, left the field midway through the third quarter with a hamstring injury did the balance of the contest shift towards the visitors.

WATCH: Henshaw crosses the line

“Ireland managed the game well, certainly, but we allowed them to build a score by being on the wrong end of an 8-4 penalty count in the first half,” said Stuart Lancaster, England’s head coach, who was exasperated at the soft nature of some of them. “We showed what we could do late on when we had some possession and territory, but before half-time we didn’t have either.”

Deeply fortunate to be only six points adrift at the interval after that error-strewn opening period – Ireland were worth far more than the three penalties nailed by Sexton, answered only by Ford’s drop goal – England found themselves being tested on the rack the moment the action resumed and immediately began to weaken in mind and spirit, if not in body. Long runs out of defence by the full-back Alex Goode and the wing Anthony Watson were eye-catchingly bold, but they also reeked of desperation.

Sexton hit the spot with a fourth penalty on 47 minutes after England, not for the first time, had been caught offside at a ruck, and when Jack Nowell set sail in pursuit of another brutally effective high kick and failed to reach port, Ireland whipped up a storm of an attack that resulted in the only try of the match.

Ireland 19 England 9 - as it happened

Appropriately enough, it was an aerial production: Murray, by a narrow margin the best player on view, hoisted the ball into the England in-goal area, forcing Goode to turn in search of a safe catch. Robbie Henshaw, the impressive new Irish centre, was all over the full-back as the ball descended, claimed possession with a perfectly timed leap and completed the score with a high-calibre touchdown in next to no space. Sexton rubbed it in with a magisterial conversion from the most unsympathetic of positions.

If this was a painful development for England, it was also the concrete manifestation of a calamity foretold as early as the opening seconds of the game. Ford fielded the first Irish kick of the day and seemed secure enough as he was brought to earth, but his forwards lost control of the ruck, Joubert made an offside call and Sexton duly opened the scoring. Thereafter, the wings Watson and Nowell were punted into sporting purgatory by the Irish playmakers, who revelled in the one-sidedness of it all.

Even when they did plot a route out of their own half of the field and set themselves up for an attack worthy of the name, line-out malfunctions betrayed them. England’s best forwards, the prop Dan Cole and the No 8 Billy Vunipola, gave everything of themselves in an attempt to give the back-line runners some front-foot ball, but with the turnover specialists in the Irish pack – Rory Best, Peter O’Mahony, Jordi Murphy – ruling the roost on the deck, it was to no avail.

As Lancaster indicated afterwards, it was Sexton’s departure and his own unloading of the bench that gave the visitors a proper handle on events. The substitute front-rowers Tom Youngs and Mako Vunipola made a significant difference in tight and loose as the Irish forwards faded, as did Nick Easter and Tom Croft.

The big English assault on 70 minutes looked like paying dividends until Joubert intervened at the crucial moment, and the referee brought them up short again at the death when Billy Twelvetrees’ scoring pass to Nowell was called marginally forward. “If the game had finished 19-14 or 19-16, it would have been a fair reflection,” Lancaster said, but it was not one of his more convincing pronouncements.

WATCH: Cole and Healy clash

As far as Ireland were concerned, they were good value for their 10-point advantage at close of play – a winning margin that marked, with pleasing symmetry, a 10th straight victory. Experienced chroniclers of the game in the Emerald Isle could be heard describing O’Connell’s side as the most effective seen in these parts in the modern era, if not the most dashing or daring. There was no obvious reason to disagree with them.

Scorers: Ireland – Try: Henshaw; Conversion Sexton; Penalties Sexton 4. England – Penalties Ford 2; Drop goal: Ford.

Ireland R Kearney (Leinster); T Bowe (Ulster), J Payne (Ulster), R Henshaw (Connacht), S Zebo (Munster); J Sexton (Racing Metro), C Murray (Munster); J McGrath (Leinster), R Best (Ulster), M Ross (Leinster), D Toner (Leinster), P O Connell (Munster, capt), P O’Mahony (Munster), S O’Brien (Leinster), J Murphy (Leinster).

Replacements T O’Donnell (Munster) for O’Brien24; I Madigan (Leinster) for Sexton 53; M Moore (Leinster) for Ross  57; C Healy (Leinster) for McGrath 58; I Henderson (Ulster) for Toner 64; F Jones (Munster) for Payne 70; S Cronin (Leinster) for Best 73.

England A Goode (Saracens); A Watson (Bath), J Joseph (Bath), L Burrell (Northampton), J Nowell (Exeter); G Ford (Bath), B Youngs (Leicester); J Marler (Harlequins), D Hartley (Northampton), D Cole (Leicester), D Attwood (Bath), G Kruis (Saracens), J Haskell (Wasps), C Robshaw (Harlequins, capt), B Vunipola (Saracens).

Replacements T Youngs (Leicester) for Hartley 52; T Croft (Leicester) for Haskell 61; M Vunipola (Saracens) for Marler 64; B Twelvetrees (Gloucester) for Joseph 67; R Wigglesworth (Saracens) for B Youngs 67; N Easter (Harlequins) for Attwood 67.

Referee C Joubert (South Africa).

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