England put themselves firmly in the hunt for the Six Nations title and ended Ireland’s Grand Slam dream with a 24-12 victory at Twickenham.
Coach Eddie Jones had thrown a curveball with his team selection, in particular the decision to deploy Jonathan Joseph on the wing, but few were left questioning his wisdom at full-time.
With France having beaten reigning champions Wales on Saturday to pile the pressure on both of these teams, it was the hosts – winners over Scotland in atrocious conditions last time out – who responded in style on Sunday to fuel their ambitions.
Ireland coach Andy Farrell will have had his sights set on a clean sweep of victories in the championship after wins over Scotland and Wales, but those hopes were dashed by a team starring his son Owen.
George Ford’s early try, facilitated by a Johnny Sexton error that characterised a rare off day for the fly-half, set the tone, with Elliot Daly touching down in not dissimilar circumstances before the break.
Robbie Henshaw darted over in the second half but any prospect of an Ireland comeback was ended when Luke Cowan-Dickie’s converted try restored England’s advantage, rendering Andrew Porter’s stoppage-time score a mere consolation.
England, whose only Six Nations loss at Twickenham in the last 19 matches came against Ireland in 2018, started with remarkable intensity and soon got their reward.
Sexton, who later badly fluffed his lines from a penalty, fumbled from Ben Youngs’ grubber kick and Ford was on hand to gather the loose ball and touch down.
Daly was similarly alert to get on the end of Ford’s searching kick as Jacob Stockdale was caught off guard, while Owen Farrell added six first-half points with the boot to leave Ireland with a mountain to climb as, in 21 matches between the nations in this competition, no side had ever overcome a half-time deficit to win.
Ireland did prove far more determined after the break and Henshaw broke through the line to cap a prolonged spell of pressure, but Sexton’s kick was again wayward.
Sensing the job was not yet done, England attacked with renewed vigour and Cowan-Dickie was the beneficiary of some excellent forward play as he crossed the line and Owen Farrell added the extras, with John Cooney doing likewise after Porter’s last-gasp try.
Flying start sets the tone for England
It was a painfully slow start that cost England so badly in the opening defeat to France, but there was no sign of any such complacency on this occasion.
England were up and at Ireland from the first whistle and, after their initial momentum was halted by a fumble from the otherwise outstanding Courtney Lawes, the hosts were quickly on the front foot again, opening the scoring via a combination of the quick-thinking Youngs – making his 100th Test appearance – the ever-alert Ford, and the unusually flustered Sexton.
Sorry Sexton human after all
He is one of the very best in world rugby, but that does not mean Sexton is immune to error. He demonstrated that twice in the opening quarter of an hour, which proved a microcosm of the whole contest.
First he treated Youngs’ kick through the middle like a hot potato, eventually palming it to the grateful Ford, then he shanked a three-pointer from the tee in a manner quite unbecoming. Another miscue followed in the second half to compound Sexton’s woes.
England welcome Wales to west London in round four on March 7, while Ireland return to Dublin to host whipping boys Italy on the same day.
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