England promised to “fire some shots” against Ireland, but no one expected them to leave the Aviva Stadium with a bonus-point victory in the bag after what was their most impressive victory in the three-year reign of Eddie Jones.
The England head coach was beaming after the 32-20 Six Nations victory, which saw the Red Rose emerge triumphant for just the second time since the famous 2003 Grand Slam-clinching victory here in Dublin. But while the 2013 12-6 victory was a drab penalty-laden affair, this was wham-bam rugby. From Jonny May’s opening try inside two minutes, to a breath-taking try off first-phase scrum ball for Henry Slade that killed off the contest, England looked not only like the dominant force that they were in 2016, but something of a marked improvement.
With Manu Tuilagi at his destructive best and the Vunipola brothers playing the type of God-like rugby that marked them out among the world’s best, England overpowered Ireland in a way that hasn’t happened during Joe Schmidt’s reign. “I don't think I've seen a game where our opponents got so many physical, dominant tackles, where our opponents have carried physically in the manner that they did,” the Ireland boss noted afterwards.
Each time Ireland attempted to pull clear, England roared back. May’s try was cancelled out by a Cian Healy score and five points from the boot of Johnny Sexton, only for England to hit back with an opportunistic score for Elliot Daly. They could have added a third before half-time, did so shortly after, and when Slade intercepted Sexton for his second try in the dying minutes, not even replacement John Cooney’s score at the death could save face for Ireland. The reigning champions has been well and truly beaten.
England knew they needed to make a strong start here after doing the opposite in their last two encounters with Ireland, with May giving them exactly that. It came from smart thinking, with Jame George deliberately throwing over an attacking lineout outside the Irish 22 to Tuilagi, who on his first Six Nations start in six years relished charging straight into the green wall in front of him.
England quickly recycled and made in-roads through Tom Curry and Kyle Sinckler, before spreading back left. Sniffing an intercept, Keith Earls charged out of the line, only for Farrell to beat him and find Daly, who committed last man Robbie Henshaw and released May to go over in the corner, Farrell converting.
Ireland responded immediately as Sexton kicked a penalty following an England offside to cut the lead to 7-3, and midway through the half they surged in front. As Curry returned from a sin-bin period for a late tackle on Earls, Sexton sent a penalty to touch on the five-metre line instead of going for the posts. Despite being back to 15 men England could not prevent the surge that came their way and Healy powered over after the driving maul was stopped inches short.
Sexton’s conversion gave Ireland a slender 10-7 lead, but back fought England. On the half-hour mark, England attacked right and Farrell chipped delicately behind Jacob Stockdale, who was deceived by the harshest of bounces. As the wing got his hand to the ball, Jack Nowell was there to tackle him from behind, and the dislodged ball fell kindly for Daly to pounce on and put England back in front. With Farrell making it 14-10 with the extras.
England thought they had extended that lead further right on the stroke of half-time after a wave of close-range attacks saw Mako Vunipola go over, but referee Jerome Garces wanted to check a double-movement and after a long debate, he chalked it off. Farrell made the most of a penalty advantage though to extend the lead to 17-10 as they headed for the changing rooms.
If the first half was an open and exciting affair, the start of the second half proved the opposite. The contest retained it’s edge, though it did not retain Earls who after a second illegal hit - this time from Maro Itoje - failed to reappear for the second half. As both defences came to the fore it was a question of who would crack first. In the end, it was Ireland.
After Sexton cut the lead to four when Sinckler caught Garry Ringrose with a high shot, England cut loose. One thing that England have struggled to do against Ireland in the pass is create the type of eye-catching moments that define matches. This was one of them. Scrum-half Ben Youngs whipped the ball from a scrum to the blindside where Slade threw a beautifully flat miss-pass to May, and the Leicester wing kicked ahead for Slade to chase. Fending off Ringrose, Slade won the race to touch, and although a TMO review showed there’s was millimetres between Slade being offside or not, Garces gave it the thumbs up.
Two scores ahead, England had breathing space. That gap grew when replacement Courtney Lawes announced his arrival by smashing 10 bells out of Ringrose, allowing Billy Vunipola and Mark Wilson to wrap up the ball and win a penalty for holding on. England celebrated, Ringrose departed and Farrell kicked a near-50-metre penalty to extend the lead to 25-13, just minutes after missing a similar effort.
Ireland knew they had to throw everything at England, which ultimately gifted them the bonus point.
Sexton, in an attempt to force something out of nothing, threw a risky pass in his own 22 that Slade read perfectly, and his diving catch allowed him to regain his stance and dive over for the fourth try, displaying the type of handling skills that the nation’s cricket team are crying out for in the West Indies.
A late consolation score from replacement scrum-half John Cooney cut the lead to a more respectable and fair 32-20, but the day belonged to England and come 16th March, so could the championship.
Ireland: Robbie Henshaw; Keith Earls (Jordan Larmour, H-T), Garry Ringrose (Joey Carbery, 73), Bundee Aki, Jacob Stockdale; Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray (John Cooney, 77); Cian Healy (David Kilcoyne, 62), Rory Best (Sean Cronin, 67), Tadhg Furlong (Andrew Porter, 62); Devin Toner (Quinn Roux, 57), James Ryan; Peter O’Mahony, Josh van der Flier, CJ Stander (Sean O’Brien, 65).
England: Elliot Daly; Jack Nowell (Chris Ashton, 74), Manu Tuilagi (George Ford, 78), Henry Slade, Jonny May; Owen Farrell, Ben Youngs; Mako Vunipola (Ellis Genge, 77), Jamie George (Luke Cowan-Dickie, 77), Kyle Sinckler (Harry Williams, 65); Maro Itoje (Nathan Hughes, 54), George Kruis (Courtney Lawes, 52); Mark Wilson, Tom Curry, Billy Vunipola.
Replacements not used: Dan Robson.
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