THE GREEN MACHINE CRUSHES ENGLAND
But it’s better from Borthwick’s boys, who restore some pride
From Nik Simon RUGBY CORRESPONDENT AT AVIVA STADIUM
dmg media (UK)
THE party started long before the final whistle. A good couple of days, to be precise. Everybody knew how this one was going, in spite of England’s best efforts to rain on the parade. Patrick Duffy, the former Dallas actor, pulled up in a 1965 Cadillac to begin the St Patrick’s weekend celebrations on Friday and was presented with an emerald green birthday cake. ‘I’ll make a wish,’ he said, closing his eyes and not even the wishes of a million revellers could have turned this into an English victory. For the last few minutes of play, 52,000 men, women and children stood to sing the Fields of Athenry in perfect harmony. It was like listening to the world’s largest choir. The year 2023 will now sit alongside 1948, 2009, 2018 in Irish rugby history. Their fourth Grand Slam. A Grand Slam built in the image of their English coach, Andy Farrell, who will perhaps be honoured with his own float when the parade comes back around in Dublin next year. Outside the ground, tickets were passing hands for a grand a piece. Safe to say, they were not paying the big bucks to watch Steve Borthwick’s England, even if his side did return home with some pride restored after last week’s drubbing at Twickenham. The Aviva Stadium gets a bad rep for its atmosphere but the anthem here was sung loud enough to burst the strongest of eardrums. Children sat with fingers in their ears as the final verse of Ireland’s call reached a spine-tingling crescendo. Ellis Genge swigged a whole can of Red Bull before kick off and his England team set out with a point to prove. Intent on spoiling the party. Watching on from the highest seats in the house, Ireland’s attacks were set out in textbook-like pictures. Pods of runners plotted along such crafted lines that they could have been drawn with a ruler. But whenever they got the ball, there was a snarling Englishman waiting when they looked up. Jack Willis, Manu Tuilagi and Ellis Genge flew into collisions, showing their teeth, chewing up the cogs of the oiled Irish machine. They realigned at such speed that Ireland were forced into errors. With his dad watching on, Owen Farrell took advantage, kicking two early penalties to give England a six-point lead. Hugo Keenan sliced a clearance kick and Irish passes hit the deck at an alarming rate. Ireland had to defend their line. James Lowe’s hair tie came loose as he bundled Tuilagi into touch and he tensed his arms and pumped up the crowd like he was headlining a heavy metal festival. This one was tighter than we expected and the Irish needed all the help they could get. As predicted, England were also far from perfect. They slipped off tackles, conceding 10 penalties in the first half alone. Genge and Alex Dombrandt took men off the ball, Maro Itoje spilled a restart and Kyle Sincker was penalised at the breakdown. Soon, it was Sexton’s turn with the tee. His first kick took him passed Ronan O’Gara as the leading Six Nations point scorer, drawing the No10’s first standing ovation of the day. There were danger signs as Irish runners cut through England’s defence, led by the effortless lines from Hugo Keenan and Josh van der Flier. Their first try from a lineout, with hooker Dan Sheehan exploiting space around the edge of the maul. The sort of first-phase brilliance we have come to expect from the world’s number one side. Suddenly, in the final minute of the half, things got a whole lot worse for England. Freddie Steward, the most mild-mannered man in their ranks, attempted to turn away from Keenan and clumsily struck him in the face with his elbow. No harm was meant but Jaco Peyper saw no mitigating factors and deemed it worthy of one of the softest sending offs of the year. ‘Red card?’ argued Owen Farrell. There were plenty in the crowd agreed with his surprise. England adapted. They slowed the game down, taking their time with box kicks and putting the ball off the field. Every so often, Anthony Watson sent a shock of electricity through the stands with his footwork, throwing a few crumbs of comfort to those back in the high office at Twickenham. Replacement full-back Jimmy O’Brien spilled a high ball and Genge won a penalty at the scrum, allowing Farrell to close the deficit to one with the first points of the half. Itoje celebrated every small victory, rallying his team-mates as Peter O’Mahony spilled the ball in contact. Needing some extra charge, Farrell sent on Jack Conan. Moments later, Ryan Baird won a momentum-swinging turnover in his 22 and Ireland sent the ball downfield. Watson was manhandled over his tryline after claiming Sexton’s Crossfield kick and Ireland launched from the scrum. Bundee Aki barrelled his way through midfield and got back on his feet to send over Robbie Henshaw for the try. There was applause when Dan Cole came on for his 100th cap but he was given a front-row seat for Ireland’s next try. Exploiting the numerical advantage down the blindside, Ireland made yards. The best hooker in the competition, Sheehan gathered a spectacular offload from Conan to score. Finally, the scoreline was comfortable enough for the home crowd to drink it in. There were mooted celebrations when Jamie George scored off the back of a driving maul in the 72nd minute, with Sexton injured in the process. His second standing ovation as he walked off with hands on hips. And England ended the game with 13 players, with Willis sin-binned for a tip tackle. Rob Herring added the bonus point try. Nobody wanted to leave after the final whistle. They watched Sexton’s post-match interview in silence, waiting to see if tears would run down his face as he exited the Six Nations stage for the final time. They watched the players’ children run around on the pitch, tying themselves up in the gold ribbons from the trophy presentation. The party started all over again, and no doubt it will continue for a few more days yet.