Murray Kinsella reports from the Aviva Stadium
WHEN WE SPEAK about ‘big plays,’ moments like Peter O’Mahony’s 74th-minute lineout steal on the English throw are exactly what we’re talking about.
The Munster man was not even supposed to start this game – a brutal, bloody affair in Dublin – but a late injury to Jamie Heaslip in the warm up allowed O’Mahony to unleash himself on Eddie Jones’ side from the off.
The loss of Heaslip, Ireland’s vice-captain, only compounded the blow of Conor Murray’s injury this week, while Ireland also saw the experienced Keith Earls exit at half time through injury.
But Joe Schmidt’s men rode every setback with composure and ended their Six Nations campaign on a brilliant high to deny England a second Grand Slam in a row and secure second place for themselves in this Six Nations.
O’Mahony was sensational in the back row for Ireland, while the sublime Johnny Sexton ran the show at out-half and provided hugely important moments of steel as the English defence consistently hammered him late and off the ball.
Robbie Henshaw was at his muscular best in midfield, while Donnacha Ryan took over leadership of the lineout from Devin Toner in commanding and aggressive fashion, clearly loving every second of the opportunity to hammer into the English.
With an unforgettable atmosphere echoing around the Aviva Stadium, it was a brilliant night in Dublin, although it makes the defeats to Scotland and Wales in this Six Nations all the more frustrating for Ireland.
Those sides would surely have failed to live with the physicality, invention and sheer will Schmidt’s men offered up tonight.
Sexton kicked eight points from the tee, while Iain Henderson barged over for a first-half try and the Irish defence dealt with everything Jones’ previously-excellent England threw at them, limiting the visitors to just three penalties from the boot of Owen Farrell.
There is much for Ireland to work on ahead of the June tour to the US and Japan and beyond, but this performance again showed that they can compete with, and beat, the best teams in the world.
After a long delay due to France’s incredible clash with Wales, Sexton and Farrell exchanged penalties in an opening quarter that saw Jared Payne add a new playmaking element to Ireland’s attack, but also drop two booming England garryowens into the Irish 22.
Having already lost two key leaders before the game, Schmidt would have despaired at the sight of captain Rory Best heading for a Head Injury Assessment in the 10th minute, but the Ulsterman returned soon after.
Ireland enjoyed 75% of the possession and territory in the opening half, although England’s ferocious defence – which included some low hits that appeared not to involve a wrap of the arms – hammered them back at crucial times.
But Jones’ men couldn’t repel the Irish onslaught in the 24th minute as O’Mahony – brilliant in the lineout throughout – claimed a five-metre throw from Best and Ireland’s maul rumbled forward threateningly.
As the maul went to deck, Henderson broke off to the right and burst through the weak tackle attempt of Anthony Watson to score, the try confirmed by TMO Ben Skeen before Sexton converted for a 10-3 lead that lasted through to half time.
Ireland had other chances, particularly when lovely handling from Furlong, Ringrose and Payne freed Earls down the right, but Schmidt’s men lost possession in the English 22 again.
A frantic passage of play around the half-hour mark saw the game open up, with Kieran Marmion making a stunning try-saving tackle on Elliot Daly after a clever Farrell chip, but neither side could crack the scramble defence.
Ireland finished the half with chances to add to their lead when Ford first kicked into touch on the full after Youngs passed back into the English 22, and then Sexton, O’Brien and Henshaw choke tackled the Bath playmaker.
But Ireland spilled the ball at a maul and then saw O’Mahony penalised for taking an English player too far beyond the ruck, while a frustrating half for Sean O’Brien ended with a knock-on of an admittedly testing pass.
Ireland lost another 59 caps of experience at half time as Earls was forced off injured, with Andrew Conway sent on for his debut, the 20th new cap Schmidt has handed out since the World Cup in 2015.
A knock-on from Watson early in the second half allowed Ireland to attack off a scrum platform, with Garry Ringrose making a half break, but errors crept in on both sides in a scrappy 10-minute period.
England turned over an Ireland maul and then Jack McGrath gave up a needless penalty for playing scrum-half Young at ruck time, with Farrell slotting the 45-metre shot from the tee to draw the English back to 10-6.
Momentum appeared to be slipping from Ireland all of a sudden but another brilliant choke tackle from Sexton, aided by Henshaw and O’Brien, on Haskell kept Ireland’s grip on the game.
O’Mahony pressured the English lineout again, before Payne broke the English line on kick return, shrugging off Youngs’ tackle before being hit high by the largely ineffective Billy Vunipola, though it was ignored by Garces and Skeen. A misplaced pass from McGrath ended the promising Irish attack as Schmidt’s men failed to convert.
Ireland did finally get a high tackle call when Farrell wrapped Sexton from behind, allowing Ireland back into the England half with 60 minutes played, resulting in Sexton being able to fire over his booming second penalty from more than 40 metres out.
Ireland led 13-6, but Jones sent on his ‘finishers’ and they helped to create the chance for another Farrell shot after Conway tackled Ben Te’o in the air – a rather harsh penalty – and the England maul forced Ireland to infringe, the inside centre drawing his side back to within four points.
Former Leinster centre Te’o's outing didn’t last long, as Henshaw’s huge hit sent the England replacement for a HIA, clearly out on his feet, with 10 minutes remaining.
But Henshaw was penalised at the breakdown soon after, again seemingly harshly as he contested on his feet, allowing England to kick down the line into a dangerous attacking position.
O’Mahony’s lineout brilliance continued, however, as he rose superbly at the front to steal sub hooker Jamie George’s throw, with Ireland replacement scrum-half Luke McGrath relieving the pressure with a clearing kick.
England unloaded everything in their locker upon Ireland in the closing minutes, but roared on by the brilliant crowd, Schmidt’s men wrapped up a second-placed finish in the championship.
Tries: Iain Henderson
Conversions: Johnny Sexton [1 from 1]
Penalties: Johnny Sexton [2 from 2]
Penalties: Owen Farrell [3 from 3]
IRELAND: Jared Payne; Keith Earls (Andrew Conway ‘HT), Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, Simon Zebo; Jonathan Sexton, Kieran Marmion (Luke McGrath ’69); Jack McGrath (Cian Healy ’60), Rory Best (captain) (HIA – Niall Scannell ’10 to ’18, permanent ’73)), Tadhg Furlong (John Ryan ’76); Donnacha Ryan (Devin Toner ’64), Iain Henderson; Peter O’Mahony, Sean O’Brien (Dan Leavy ’66), CJ Stander.
Replacements not used: Paddy Jackson.
ENGLAND: Mike Brown; Anthony Watson, Jonathan Joseph (Jack Nowell ’68), Owen Farrell, Elliot Daly; George Ford (Ben Te’o ’63 (HIA – George Ford ’70)), Ben Youngs (Danny Care ’64); Joe Marler (Mako Vunipola ‘HT), Dylan Hartley (captain) (Jamie George ’56), Dan Cole; Joe Launchbury, Courtney Lawes; Maro Itoje, James Haskell (Tom Wood ’60), Billy Vunipola (Nathan Hughes ’63).
Replacements not used: Kyle Sinckler.
Referee: Jerome Garces [FFR].