James Crombie/INPHO Ireland captain Johnny Sexton.
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Sexton gets dream Six Nations send-off on historic day for Irish rugby
The Ireland captain was the centre of attention but others stood up when the team needed it.

EARLIER TODAY CURIOSITY drew me into the belly of the beast. Temple Bar on St Patrick’s weekend. A bad SNL sketch comes to life as groups in leprechaun hats darted from pub door to pub door trying to find shelter from the afternoon drizzle. 

At a sports shop near Trinity College the queue snaked all the way towards the back of the building. In the window, a mannequin decked in full Ireland kit sported the red scrum cap favoured by current World Player of the Year Josh van der Flier. At the bottom of Grafton Street a lone tout called for spares – the bigger the game, the further they creep out.

A small band of England fans braved the rain in short sleeves. Another debated making their way towards the bars closer to Lansdowne Road in the hopes of landing a last-minute ticket for the big one. They used to make the trip over the Irish Sea in expectation but this one came tinged with fear. It was Grand Slam day in Dublin and few were giving the visitors any chance of spoiling the party.

The Aviva has never felt so full. There’s a couple of blocks of spare seats at the back of the sizeable press area which are rarely occupied. Today they were reserved for Jordan Larmour, Gavin Coombes and other players who didn’t make the matchday squad. It might just have been the fullest house since the redeveloped ground opened in 2010.

A sense of destiny hung over the day but England were never going to just roll over. They played direct and carried hard, as you knew they would. They tried to slow Ireland’s ball and were willing to take some chances with their discipline. With eight minutes played, Owen Farrell kicked Steve Borthwick’s potential upsetters into a 3-0 lead.

An early sense of tension gripped the ground before the first rendition of The Fields rang out. It’s often deployed as a victory song but this version was a rallying call. 

Ireland lifted the tempo. Johnny Sexton took a chance from a tap and go. No joy. At the other end, Farrell kicked England 6-0 clear. 

maro-itoje-surrounded-by-the-ireland-team-in-a-maul Morgan Treacy / INPHO England’s Maro Itoje surrounded by the Ireland team in a maul. Morgan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

Ireland needed a settler. The chance came with a 19th-minute penalty that saw Ireland’s leading man finally step clear of his old pal Ronan O’Gara in the record books. Johnny Sexton, the all-time Six Nations points-scorer, an achievement met with a standing ovation.

It’s 13 years since Sexton kicked his first points in this competition. Any 10 who lasts that long in the saddle has to at least survive a couple of challengers pulling at his jersey but the Leinster out-half has barely had his collar stretched. That’s as much down to his enduring class as it is the quality of those queuing up behind him.

Even amid the chaos and confusion of a high-intensity Test game, it’s still hard to draw the eyes away from him. Earlier this week Sexton spoke of wanting to win today so he could bring his son Luca out onto the pitch. Imagine the emotions running through his head during the anthems. The centre of attention all week. At 37, still the player the rest all look up to.

He now shares a dressing room with lads who barely remember a time when Ireland teams didn’t have Johnny Sexton playing 10.

Hugo Keenan was just 13 when Sexton first lined out in the Six Nations. Caelan Doris and Dan Sheehan were 11. Ryan Baird was 10. Their entire careers are still ahead of them, and already they’ve written their names in Irish Rugby history – the first Ireland team to win a Grand Slam in Dublin.

None of those players had even been capped when Ireland crashed out of the last World Cup. Of today’s starting team, seven of the 15 made were handed their Test debuts by Farrell. Yet of the two teams on show here, England are the one in transition, and an Ireland side led by an Englishman the RFU were happy to cut ties with are threatening to boldly go where no Ireland team has gone before.

And yet today isn’t the day for World Cup talk.

bundee-aki-celebrates-dan-sheehan-scoring-their-first-try Dan Sheridan / INPHO Ireland’s Bundee Aki celebrates Dan Sheehan's first try. Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

It was Sheehan who landed Ireland’s first proper blow, cutting inside to score the game’s first try with 32 minutes played. The place erupted.

Having finally seized the lead Ireland began to look like the team that have lit up this championship.

Sexton and Mack Hansen moved the ball through the hands with sublime speed and accuracy. Keenan – who brilliantly plucked one high ball from the skies – began to run with real intent. One of those charges ended when Freddie Steward crashed into him side-on. A clear red, or a rugby incident, depending on who you asked in the press box. It was the last act of Steward’s evening. It also ended Keenan’s, the fullback not returning after Ireland carried a 10-6 lead into the break.

freddie-steward-tackles-hugo-keenan-resulting-in-a-red-card Dan Sheridan / INPHO England’s Freddie Steward tackles Hugo Keenan. Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

It still hung on a knife-edge. Farrell added another penalty five minutes after the restart. 

Ireland dug in, with big plays from big players. Sexton was caught late by Ben Curry as he clipped a cross-field kick toward the corner. The ball bounced kindly and Hansen put pressure on the scrambling England defenders. The cavalry arrived and Ireland won the five-metre scrum. They retained possession and attacked. Gibson-Park to Aki, Aki to Henshaw. Game.

Finally, it was time to have some real fun. Ireland piled forward in numbers again. Attacking the corner Jack Conan dipped inside a gap and released Sheehan with a beautiful offload to allow the hooker bag his second. Sexton’s conversion was his best of the game, his hands raised in the air long before the ball swept inside the posts. He even threw in a little jig as he made his way back into position, for the week that’s in it perhaps. 

With five to play he limped off to his second standing ovation of the evening. Job done, with Rob Herring providing the icing on the cake with a late bonus-point score. 

dan-sheehan-scores-their-third-try-despite-dan-cole Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheehan scores Ireland's third try. Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Sexton’s Six Nations send-off could easily have made this whole thing feel like the end of an era. Instead, it might just be the start of new one. Ireland have played better rugby in this championship but today they responded to a different type of adversity. There’s value in that.

No more than 20 minutes after the final whistle a small group of the Irish media were pitchside, a tantalising taste of what the players must feel in moments like these. The scenes were special, the noise deafening.

A couple of players made their way over. Some of their kids played with the golden ticker-tape in the middle of the pitch. Some even got a high five from Paul O’Connell. Andy Farrell carried his grandson Freddie, son of England captain Owen, in one arm. Hugo Keenan stopped to take a selfie with some supporters behind the posts. Jack Conan grabbed a member of the Ireland support staff in a bear hug. It doesn’t matter if you’re playing minis rugby or are the top-ranked team in the world. Winning feels magic. 

To our right, Johnny Sexton made his way down the tunnel, medal hanging around his neck. Luca trailed a few steps behind.   

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