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 into town 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 – reduced to 14 after Freddie Steward’s red card – returned home with some pride restored.
The Aviva Stadium gets a bad rep for its atmosphere but the anthem here was sung loud enough to rattle the strongest of eardrums. Children sat with fingers in their ears as the final verse of Ireland’s call reached a spine-tingling crescendo.
Ireland beat England 29-16 to win the Grand Slam title on Saturday afternoon, claiming a historic victory at the Aviva Stadium
Dan Sheehan put Ireland ahead after a promising half from England just before the break, scoring from a well-worked lineout
Freddie Steward was sent off on the brink of half time after inadvertently putting Hugo Keenan on the floor with his shoulder
Ellis Genge swigged a whole can of Red Bull before kick-off and flung the can across the grass. His team set out with a point to prove, licking wounds after their drubbing by France, intent on spoiling the party. Watching on from the highest seats in the house, Ireland’s attacking formation were laid out like perfect pictures. Pods of runners, plotted along lines crafted with such precision they could have been drawn with a ruler.
But whenever they got the ball, there was a snarling Englishman there when they looked up. Genge, Jack Willis and Kyle Sinckler flew into collisions, showing their teeth, chewing up the cogs of the oiled Irish machine. They realigned at such speed that forced Ireland into errors. With his dad watching on, Owen Farrell took advantage, kicking two early penalties to give England a six-point lead. Hugo Keenan spectacularly sliced a clearance kick and Irish passes hit the deck at an alarming rate. Pressure? Nerves? You bet.
Ireland were forced to defend their lines. James Lowe’s hair band came loose as he bundled Tuilagi into touch and, with his jet-black locks flying around, he clenched his fists and pumped up crowd like he was headlining a heavy metal festival. This was a tougher assignment for them than many had imagined and Ireland needed all the support they could get.
Yet England’s fault lines showed. They were beaten one-on-one and conceded 10 penalties in the first half alone. Genge and Alex Dombrandt took out men off the ball, Maro Itoje spilled a restart and Kyle Sinckler was penalised at the breakdown. Soon, it was Sexton’s turn with the kicking tee.
Their iconic No 10 earned his first standing ovation of the day when he kicked a penalty to move him above Ronan O’Gara as the leading Six Nations point scorer. And soon after he was converting his side’s first try, scored when their talismanic hooker Dan Sheehan exploited space around a lineout maul to score a perfectly executed first-phase try.
And 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 worth of one of the softest sending offs of the year. ‘Red card?’ argued Farrell. There were plenty in the crowd who agreed with his surprise.
Robbie Henshaw’s try just after the hour mark handed Ireland a comfortable lead over England, who battled hard with 14 men
Sheehan breached England’s defence again late on, putting Ireland within touching distance of a historic Grand Slam crown
England adapted, slowing 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. Maro Itoje celebrated every small victory, rallying his teammates as Peter O’Mahony spilled the ball in contact.
But eventually, the gulf started to open. The world’s number one side began to flex their muscles. Spaces opened up on the pitch and Ireland’s line break statistics quickly shot up to eight against zero.
Needing some extra charge in their green machine, Farrell sent on Jack Conan and the No 8 made a difference. After Ryan Baird won a turnover in his 22, Sexton booted the ball downfield, before landing a Crossfield kick on Watson. England’s winger was manhandled over his own line and, from the scrum that followed, barrelling centre Bundee Aki sent over Robbie Henshaw to score.
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 the prop was given a front-row seat for Ireland’s next try. Exploiting the numerical advantage down the blindside, Sheehan gathered a spectacular offload from Conan to score. The hooker delivered the performance of the day, finally establishing a scoreline comfortable enough for the home crowd to drink it in.
Jamie George’s try inspired hope for England – but Jack Willis’ yellow card moments later put the visitors down to just 13 men
Rob Herring put the game beyond doubt in the closing minutes, erupting the Aviva Stadium as Ireland scored their fourth try
There were mooted celebrations when Jamie George scored off the back of a driving maul in the 72nd minute. Sexton injured himself trying to stop it, receiving his second standing ovation as he limped off with hands on hips. It says something about his standards that he later revealed his frustration at some of his team’s mistakes.
Not much has gone England’s way in this competition, and they finished the match with 13 players after Willis was sin-binned for a tip tackle. There was one final act from the men in green, with Rob Herring scoring the bonus point try, freeing up the sound technicians to blast the sounds of Bono around the stadium.
Nobody wanted to leave after the final whistle. They hung on to every words Sexton’s post-match interview, listening 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, sepia-toned moments to last a lifetime.
Farrell Sr cracked open a can of Guinness and sipped it as he pondered his team’s achievement. The party started all over again – and no doubt it will continue for a couple more days yet.
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