Thursday 14 December 2017

Ireland dig deep to spoil English coronation

Ireland 13 England 9

Jared Payne is tackled by Mike Brown, left, and Ben Youngs. Photo: Stephen McCarthy
Jared Payne is tackled by Mike Brown, left, and Ben Youngs. Photo: Stephen McCarthy
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

At the end of a tumultuous evening in Lansdowne Road we were treated to the not unique sight of an England captain receiving the Championship trophy when what he wanted was the Grand Slam. Unlike times past, however, there was the missed boat that was England's bid to become sole owners of the world record number of wins. It's a tough old business this Test rugby lark, as Eddie Jones will testify.

The England coach didn't look too pleased as he gathered his things shortly before the final whistle - his team were camped in their own 22, trying desperately to shake off green shirts and get down the other end to save the game. Going end to end in wet weather, where any sort of mistake ends your journey, is tall order stuff. It was never going to happen.

When television directors are calling the shots in the Six Nations, one game can't start until the preceding one has finished. So the bizarre conclusion between France and Wales in Paris - which ran to 99:55 on the clock - made for a heavily pregnant pause before we got underway at the Aviva. It was worth the wait.

You knew that the squalls would rule out any chance of a repeat of last week's surgical stuff from England, where they had filleted the Scots at will. But you hoped that in its absence we would get an absorbing contest that was in the balance going down the final straight. No complaints there.

Kieran Marmion was a big performer. Photo: PA Wire.
Kieran Marmion was a big performer. Photo: PA Wire.

Moreover we got a chapter from a fairy tale in the performance of man of the match Peter O'Mahony. Squeezed out of the starting line-up since recovering from knee surgery last year, he was the beneficiary of one of those eventful pre-match warm-ups where you lose a player: in this case Jamie Heaslip, with a torn hamstring.

Not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, O'Mahony topped the tackle count on 13, and was joint second on carries (11) behind CJ Stander (16). If those stats illustrate the business of his game - he delivered out of touch as well, where Ireland won 13 of 14 lineouts - then it was also a case where the silver lining of having him there obliterated the cloud of losing Heaslip.

"He's a bloody good player," Jones said of him afterwards. "And those conditions suited him perfectly. But we'll fight another day lads - don't worry."

O'Mahony wasn't the only big performer. Kieran Marmion got to the pace of the game immediately and played really well, and despite looking jittery when he came on to make his debut, Andrew Conway can he happy with the way things worked out as well. But it was a day for forwards, and Ireland's set-piece was excellent.

England's Ben Youngs tackles Ireland's Simon Zebo. Photo: PA Wire
England's Ben Youngs tackles Ireland's Simon Zebo. Photo: PA Wire

In the greasy conditions it was a battle to hold onto the ball. And another struggle to stay on your feet given the speed of the two defensive lines. So there was a lot of one-out rugby, a lot of readily indentifiable targets to aim at, and no shortage of bodies being put in harm's way. Johnny Sexton had the highest bounty on his head, and the arrogance of referee Jerome Garces in not going upstairs after another late hit - this one in the last quarter from Tom Wood - was hard to fathom.

Predictably then it wasn't raining tries, and the only touchdown from the first 40 minutes came from a lineout maul: Iain Henderson's second try of the campaign. It came on 23 minutes with the scores tied 3-3 after Sexton and Owen Farrell had swapped penalties. And it would be the only try of the game.

The margin would have been greater had Ireland managed to hang onto the ball after a lovely play out the back had put Keith Earls away, late in the half, but it was spilled in contact.

Still, Ireland would have been happy enough with their position. As the second half developed, however, England's forwards got a firmer grip on the game. Ireland's concession of penalties got out of control - finishing one ahead of England on 10 - and England's maul was becoming a powerful platform. Without something to interrupt it you could see them overhauling the home side.

So Farrell was able to pull back three points on 50 minutes, but 12 minutes later Sexton restored the gap with a great strike from distance when England's line-speed had got them into trouble. It was a huge moment, for a few minutes earlier Jared Payne, who had been slow to start, made a clean break from unlikely circumstances but got no return. So Ireland needed something for their efforts.

It knocked England out of their stride a bit, and as Farrell knocked another one over on 67 minutes to make it 13-9, he knew the gap should have been down to a single point. The longer it went on the more desperate they became. And they couldn't improve on their score.

Scorers - Ireland: Henderson try, Sexton 2 pens, con.

England captain Dylan Hartley lifts the Six Nations trophy at the RBS 6 Nations match at the Aviva Stadium, Dublin. Photo: PA Wire
England captain Dylan Hartley lifts the Six Nations trophy at the RBS 6 Nations match at the Aviva Stadium, Dublin. Photo: PA Wire

England: Farrell 3 pens

Ireland: J Payne; K Earls (A Conway ht), G Ringrose, R Henshaw, S Zebo; J Sexton, K Marmion (L McGrath 70); J McGrath (C Healy 60), R Best (capt, N Scannell 10-18 HIA), T Furlong (J Ryan 76), D Ryan (D Toner 65), I Henderson, P O'Mahony, CJ Stander, S O'Brien (D Leavy 68).

England: M Brown; A Watson, J Joseph, O Farrell, E Daly (J Nowell 68); G Ford (B Teo 63; G Ford 71), B Youngs (D Care 63); J Marler (M Vunipola 40), D Hartley (capt, J George 55), D Cole (K Sinckler 78), J Launchbury, C Lawes, M Itoje, B Vunipola (N Hughes 63), J Haskell (T Wood 60).

Referee: J Garces (France).

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