What’s the Irish for déjà vu? England have trodden this painful path twice before in Dublin, beaten on the Six Nations Championship’s final day in 2001 and 2011 when they had a Grand Slam at stake - but this magnificent, focussed, clever effort by Ireland surely topped both of those much-recalled days of recent rugby history.
England had mitigating circumstances to point to on those previous occasions, based around delays and disruptive injuries – whereas this time they looked well set to round off a campaign, that had already delivered them a second successive Championship title, by completing their world-record 19th straight win, and a first back-to-back Slam since 1991 and 1992.
Instead at the end of a clattering, entertaining, occasionally controversial match it was left to the visiting captain Dylan Hartley to reprise the glum role of Matt Dawson in 2001 here, and Nick Easter 10 years later, by receiving the champions’ trophy in the aftermath of a morale-shredding defeat.
The England players did their best to raise smiles for the photographers as they climbed onto the champions' podium and were announced over the public-address system one by one, as fireworks lit up the night sky, but the true feelings that lay inside can be easily guessed at.
While England had been rightly feted for winning their last 18 matches, Ireland had won only half of theirs - but one of those was the famous victory in Chicago last November that stopped the All Blacks’ world-record sequence at 18, so the men in green had “form”.
They also had an excellent record at this stadium to protect, with only two losses in their previous 17 matches here, and none in the Six Nations Championship under head coach Joe Schmidt.
The future is exciting for both teams as they will be Europe’s vanguard alongside New Zealand and Australia as the top four seeds for the 2019 World Cup draw in Japan in May.
But Ireland knew they could only finish second-best in this competition after their losses away to Scotland and Wales – and maybe the overriding lesson of another Slam gone west is just how difficult it is to win away from home in this claustrophobic competition.
Peter O’Mahony was a surprise starter in the Ireland pack after the late withdrawal of No.8 Jamie Heaslip but the experienced Munster flanker’s familiarity with the plays and ploys was such that he was the main line-out target in the first half.
And it was a set-piece based around O’Mahony at the tail of the line-out which brought the only try of the match with 23 minutes gone. The scores were locked at 3-3 after a penalty goal by Johnny Sexton replied to by Owen Farrell – the pair of kickers also had an off-the-ball scuffle with Farrell pushing his opponent in the face as Sexton held onto his legs – when England’s returning No.8 Billy Vunipola transgressed by diving over a ruck.
The offence was in the England 22 but Ireland kicked for touch, their captain and hooker Rory Best picked out a soaring O’Mahony with the line-out throw and Iain Henderson peeled off a dynamic maul to dot down a dramatic try, which Sexton converted.
It was Henderson’s fifth try for Ireland in his 32nd Test, and reward for his selection over the demoted Devin Toner.
The atmosphere around Lansdowne Road before kick-off had appeared muted, almost in expectation of an English win, but the majority in the crowd loved what they eventually saw as a first half that was delayed while the France vs Wales game was completed finally got going.
Successful Irish choke tackles to create turnovers, a penalty against Maro Itoje for a late charge on Sexton, a desperate chase-down of Keith Earls by Elliot Daly and a crucial intervention in tackle by Mike Brown on Earls to force a fumble were all examples of the odds-on favourites England being put under tremendous pressure.
Collisions with English forwards had removed a handful of Italian and Scottish players from the field in the past two rounds of Six Nations matches but Ireland appeared to have the will and the wherewithal to stand up to the challenge.
The interval gave the chance for the respective head coaches Joe Schmidt and Eddie Jones to tweak tactics, and both men made changes, with Andrew Conway sent on for Earls to make his debut, and Mako Vunipola replacing England’s loosehead prop Joe Marler.
And Hartley made his now customary third-quarter exit, in favour of Jamie George.
Where Jonathan Joseph had ripped through a disjointed, disrupted Scotland last week, Garry Ringrose of Ireland was looking the star No.13 this time, consistently making gains over the advantage line with the footwork that has earned the 22-year-old Leinster centre so many plaudits this season.
Jared Payne and Kieran Marmion covered capably for the injured Conor Murray and Rob Kearney respectively, and although Farrell’s 47-metre boomer of a penalty trimmed Ireland’s lead after 50 minutes, Payne’s thrilling break maintained the feeling Ireland were on the front foot, going into the final quarter.
Sexton matched Farrell again with an equally monstrous penalty in the 63rd minute for 13-6, then substitute Ben Te’o was tackled in the air by Conway.
It gave England – who had just replaced George Ford and Billy Vunipola – the much-needed fillip of an attacking base near the Ireland 22, and a penalty accrued when the Irish pulled down a maul.
Farrell, now at fly-half with Daly about to move into the centres, converted it coolly and the gap was back at four points with 13 minutes remaining.
Ford was restored when Te’o suffered apparent concussion, and a reset scrum with an England put-in on halfway ratcheted up the tension – as if there was any need to.
England were unable to get far across the gainline but they kept possession and earned a penalty which – on a knife-edge decision with seven minutes still available on the clock – vice-captain Farrell chose to put to touch.
It misfired horribly for Farrell and England as O’Mahony made a tremendous leap at the front of the line-out to steal the ball from Itoje.
Care’s lunge to knock the ball out of Luke McGrath’s hands behind a scrum conceded a crass penalty at a crucial time, and Brown’s knock-on chasing the game was an agonising finish.
Ireland: try: Henderson; conversion: Sexton; penalties: Sexton 2
England: penalties: Farrell 3.
Ireland: J Payne; K Earls (rep A Conway 41st min), G Ringrose, R Henshaw, S Zebo; J Sexton, K Marmion (L McGrath 69); J McGrath (C Healy 60), R Best (capt; N Scannell 10-18), T Furlong (J Ryan 76), D Ryan (D Toner 65), I Henderson, P O’Mahony, S O’Brien (D Leavy 68), CJ Stander.
England: M Brown; A Watson, J Joseph (J Nowell 68), O Farrell, E Daly; G Ford (B Te’o 63-70), B Youngs (D Care 65); J Marler (M Vunipola 41), D Hartley (capt; J George 56), D Cole (K Sinckler 78), J Launchbury, M Itoje, C Lawes, J Haskell (T Wood 60), B Vunipola (N Hughes 63).
Referee: J Garces (France).
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