There have been some hilariously green days celebrated but few to match the thunder at this particular final whistle. Andy Farrell’s modern Ireland were already the No.1 team in the world and now have the Six Nations Grand Slam added to their long list of honours. In fact, though, the cheers also reflected a measure of genuine relief that their Shamrock dreams had actually come true.
Even against 14 men, Freddie Steward was shown a red card shortly before half-time, with the hosts leading just 10-9 with 19 minutes remaining. England were proving stubborn opponents and a final Irish nightmare was still a faint possibility. An Irish team had never won a Slam in Dublin before and the weight of history was looming large.
In the end, though, it all ended well and dandy. Center Robbie Henshaw stepped up to ease the tension and his energetic teammate Dan Sheehan touched down for his second try of the evening to kill any chance of a major upset. Even the sight of Jonny Sexton limping off prematurely in his final Six Nations game could not dampen the emerald fever on the island of Ireland on Saturday night.
If it was far from the best Irish performance of all time – or even this season – it still sets Ireland up well ahead of this autumn’s Rugby World Cup. All week, Ireland talked about playing games rather than opportunities. Easier said, less easily done when a hopeful nation is so saturated with anticipation. Friday’s St Patrick’s Day parade in Dublin was estimated to have been watched by half a million people but, in many imaginations, Saturday’s pageant felt even bigger.
With Ireland having won 21 of their previous 23 Tests, confidence was sky high. The closest equivalent in terms of pre-match assurance was the 2011 World Cup when everyone in Auckland, everyone wearing a beret, expected New Zealand to beat France in the final. The All Blacks were hugely relieved to squeeze home 8-7 in the event, a reminder that top-level play is never entirely predictable.
Despite this, it was difficult for England to play well in the conditions. Even the lunchtime rain had disappeared from kick-off, replaced by a cool, breezy evening with Irish prospects. Surely there will be no slip between the cup and the gumshield wearer’s lips?
Early scoreboard pressure, though, came from England through two Owen Farrell penalties as some fluttering home nerves became apparent. Ireland are a good side but they are still human. England were also making a strong commitment to the breakdown, a couple of early turnovers markedly improving on a poor start against France at Twickenham.
It was a relief for the home fans, accordingly, when exuberance allowed Sexton to score the penalty he needed from 40 meters out to become the highest point scorer in Six Nations history. The last thing England needed was Sexton settling into the groove well, the fly-half having already been denied when a quick tap near the visitors’ line ended up catching him out.
For that reason it wasn’t the biggest surprise in the world when Alex Dombrandt tackled Sexton and Owen Farrell complained loudly to the referee about the Irish captain making a meal of the challenge. After Sexton stopped holding his head, the charge took an equally dim view, and hackles on both sides began to rise.
Perhaps that was all Ireland needed to return to beast mode. At their best they are as clever and precise in the first step as any team around and they underlined that fact after 33 minutes. From England’s perspective, though, it was disappointing defensively as Josh van der Flier won his 50th cap by sending his Leinster team-mate Sheehan through a huge hole straight from the lineout. Ireland, ultimately, was back and forth for their fortunes.
It was going to make their work very easy. If there was no serious malice in Steward’s braced challenge then it was needlessly reckless for Hugo Keenan to fly forward and catch the full-back with a cocked elbow as he went to re-gather the sprawling ball. The referee, Jaco Pepper, could find no extenuating circumstances and, like last year, England were reduced to 14 men before half-time.
An already uphill task now felt impossible, with Ireland missing a clear try-scoring chance just before the interval with a huge overlap. England conceded just 10 penalties in the first 40 minutes, their determination to atone for a 53-10 defeat at home to France.
However, before Henshaw’s effort had begun to break the White Dam, Sheehan and his replacement Rob Herring added gloss to the final scoreline. A close-quarter rumble finished by Jamie George did the same for England but their bottom-half finish is no slouch and they have now dropped out of the top two for the third successive season.
At least it was a spirited performance on which they can hang a hat or two, with Dan Cole’s 100th cap another moment to fancy. That said, the faith of Red Rose supporters has been severely tested at times this winter and many questions remain unanswered. What next, for example, for Marcus Smith? Is it really time to regroup in all areas and become a serious World Cup contender? And so on.
Although it was Ireland’s day, it wasn’t as super-charged a final Saturday performance as they would have liked. Sexton still has a few months left and they can now look to France this autumn with some optimism. Even when not completely pure, the green machine has to stop a lot.