Marcus Smith crushes Ireland’s grand slam dream as England become title contenders

England 23-22 Ireland: Smith’s drop goal in the final moments secured England victory to deny Ireland a shot at back-to-back grand slams and leave the Six Nations crown up for grabs on the final weekend

Harry Latham-Coyle
at Twickenham
Saturday 09 March 2024 23:18 GMT
2023 Sports Review Of The Year

Twickenham has scarcely known a noise like it. Marcus Smith dropped boot to ball and then wheeled away in embrace of triumph and, once they’d caught up, his England teammates. Ireland – the best team in the world – had been beaten, dreams of a grand slam and history dashed by a side producing their best home performance for more than a decade.

Smith’s drop goal with time expiring gave England victory by a single point, the margins so fine in this grand old championship. The Six Nations heads to the final weekend with a title still up for grabs – and on this evidence, England will be contenders.

Marcus Smith, right, celebrates his match-winning kick (Getty Images)

With Scotland beaten in Rome, Ireland knew a win of any kind would be enough for a title retention and set up a shot at history in Dublin next week. But this tournament of contradictions, contortions and coils just keeps on delivering.

Perhaps not since beating the All Blacks in 2012 have England gone toe-to-toe with a side of this sort of repute and emerged on top. The hosts had returned to Twickenham unfancied and unloved, again an eddy of contradictions and complications caught cold by Scotland in another Calcutta Cup of missed opportunities.

Marcus Smith’s drop goal pipped Ireland at the death (PA)

This was a performance to be proud of for Steve Borthwick’s side, their best by a distance since the World Cup semi-final against South Africa; perhaps, in the manner in which they shut down so many components of Ireland’s all-court game, better even than that. Crucially, the result was different – Borthwick at last has the signature win he has so craved, Smith coming up with a magic moment in the throes to throw this championship open again.

England began with intent and intelligence in attack up at Murrayfield a fortnight ago, before deviating from the script to let a strong start slip. They had learned their lines here, too, with Ellis Genge and Ben Earl prominent as midfield thrusting carriers and some funky shapes behind the primary ball carriers in a bright first 15 minutes.

There was still a stroke of fortune about their first try, nicely taken though it was. A horrible collision between Tommy Freeman and Calvin Nash left the Ireland wing prostrate having suffered a head injury, leaving the Irish right flank unguarded. England were smart and sharp enough to exploit the space, George Ford and Henry Slade providing the linking hands to allow Ollie Lawrence to steam past Jack Crowley to the line.

Ollie Lawrence powered over for England’s opening try (Getty Images)

Nash departed for a head injury assessment from which he would not return, Ciaran Frawley’s introduction pushing Hugo Keenan to the wing. Ireland flashed at times in phase play but missed Keenan’s canny touches in the line, allowing England and their blitz defence to harry and hassle Jack Crowley.

Ford and Crowley traded penalties to leave England two points in front after an opening quarter they had just about edged. Lawrence was soon dotting down what he felt was a legitimate second score, the centre collecting the loose change after Ciaran Frawley and George Furbank had tangled trying to corral Lawrence’s own kick. Furbank had just got their first, though – knock on, no try.

Territory tilted England’s way as they controlled the middle quarter but Ford missed both from the tee and with a rather ugly snap drop goal, allowing Crowley to wipe away the hosts’ lead with a wobbly penalty. A crisper strike from the Ireland fly half sent his side down the tunnel four to the good.

Ireland edged in front through Jack Crowley’s boot (Getty Images)

But a tight half left tensions high, Borthwick and Irish counterpart Andy Farrell clashing as they waited to follow the players down the tunnel. The Ireland head coach was rather happier five minutes after the restart, a Jamison Gibson-Park box kick won back in the air by Irish hands to spring an attack. Crowley delayed his pass beautifully to put Caelan Doris through a hole with Slade charging up with reckless abandon, and that left plenty of room on the left for James Lowe to hurry home in the corner.

England, though, had an answer. With Ireland narrowed on the right, George Martin and Maro Itoje lolloped into space like two giraffes on the open savannah. Martin offloaded, Itoje transferred, and Furbank provided a gazelle’s gambol to the line.

James Lowe appeared to have given Ireland victory (Getty Images)

English spirits lifted. With Ireland’s lineout malfunctioning, the more stable game was the hosts’, allowing them to progress bit by bit before Earl bashed the door down, shrugging off three defenders to breach the line. Peter O’Mahony’s cynical breakdown infringement saw him sin binned, and the irrepressible Earl capitalised with a bruising short-range burst with England a man to the good.

Ireland – who by now had starting scrum-half Gibson-Park on the wing – have shown their champion qualities time and again over the last four years and this was another significant test. Where their phase play has repeatedly worn teams down, England were holding firm, still up off the line with the relentless intensity. With 12 minutes to play, the hosts had made almost double the metres of their opponents – England had made all of the running.

And so it was merely a question of holding their nerve, something with which Borhwick’s side have so struggled with both under the head coach and his predecessor. Furbank’s aimless charge gave Ireland a penalty and territory, and England’s outside blitz faltered. Lowe cantered to the corner for a second time.

Ben Earl scored a try in a magnificent individual performance that helped England to victory (Getty Images)

When Elliot Daly’s long-range penalty slipped by 10 minutes from time, it felt like the engraver could begin their etching on the trophy. But Smith struck and Ireland fell to the floor. They will pick themselves up and go again against the travelling Scots next weekend. It may yet be a St Patrick’s Day party to remember in Dublin, but England have catapulted themselves back into the title mix.

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