The 2023 Six Nations came to an end on St Patrick’s weekend in Dublin as Ireland looked to complete just a third Six Nations Grand Slam (their fourth in any version of the tournament) against an England team who would be hoping for a reaction after being embarrassed at home by France last weekend.
Jonathan Sexton was playing in his last Six Nations match and would surely be looking to go out on a high, but it was his opposite number Owen Farrell who opened the scoring with a penalty, as Ireland struggled to deal with England’s early defensive pressure. However Ireland soon grew into the game, and Sexton almost had the Six Nations points record to himself with a 5m quick tap penalty, only to be held up over the line. The missed opportunity proved costly, as England’s next possession around the Irish 22 saw Farrell kick another penalty. Sexton finally made the Six Nations points record his own with a penalty as the first quarter came to an end, getting a standing ovation from the crowd at the Aviva Stadium. As the game reached the half hour, Ireland were beginning to find half-gaps, and when Josh van der Flier peeled off the back of a maul just inside the English 22, his pass back inside sent Dan Sheehan through the gap his run had created for the opening try of the game, Sexton adding the extras. And then came the body blow for England with the clock in the red, as Freddie Steward collided with Hugo Keenan following a knock-on by Mack Hansen, and Jaco Peyper sent him off for turning in and making contact with Keenan’s head—leading to the irish fullback failing a HIA. England however managed to hold out the resultant Irish attack and make it into the break just 10-6 down.
A man down, England looked to rely on territory and the set piece to keep in the game, and cut the Irish lead to just a point with half hour remaining after Ellis Genge got the better of Tadhg Furlong at the scrum. Ireland continued to put the pressure on, though, bringing on Tom O’Toole to secure the scrum and Jack Conan in place of Peter O’Mahony to add an extra carrier, and after Anthony Watson was forced to take the ball back over his own line on the hour after collecting Sexton’s cross-kick, Ireland stretched the defence with a couple of phases to the posts before hitting back to the blind side to send Robbie Henshaw over. And the win looked likely with 12 minutes remaining as Dan Sheehan’s carry out wide brought Ireland into the 22, and after resetting, Mack Hansen released Jack Conan to make the yards up to the 5m line before offloading to Sheehan for the finish in the corner. England hit back quickly with a try for Jamie George from a driving maul after Jack Conan was pinged for offside at the breakdown, while Sexton left the pitch in some pain but under his own steam to a hero’s applause after getting caught at the bottom of the maul. But any hopes of a late comeback victory for England were brought to an end as Jack Willis was sent to the bin for taking Ross Byrne beyond the horizontal, while Rob Herrin peeled off the resultant lineout maul to go over in the corner for a 29-16 victory and an historic Grand Slam.
While I’m sure Ireland would have preferred a much simpler match, this was probably the perfect situation for them. This is a team who are notoriously famous for having peaked too soon, and I’m sure that after their recent victories over New Zealand, South Africa and France, and with their ranking as #1 in the world, people are just waiting for them to collapse at another World Cup.
So while some may see this as the first sign, I think that Andy Farrell will use this as a timely wake-up call. But more than that, it is a reminder that they cannot let the occasion get the better of them and must remain focused for every game, while also a timely reminder not to underestimate a team, no matter how bad their recent performances have been, and a reminder of just how hard a team can fight when they lose a man to a red card. But further to that, Keenan’s failed HIA gave Jimmy O’Brien some crucial experience in a major match, while Ryan Baird was also forced to step up after being given the number 4 shirt with both Tadhg Beirne and Iain Henderson missing through injury.
But at the end of the day, a win is a win, and a Grand Slam just months out from a World Cup will give them so much belief that 202 could finally be the year that they break their World Cup curse.
Whether it was the return of Owen Farrell at 10 and Manu Tuilagi at 12, or just a number of players realising that last week had left them 1 poor performance away from the end of their Test careers, but this English performance was unrecognisable from last week.
Players were getting up in the Irish faces, and at the breakdown they weren’t just making it a contest, they were actually winning on the balance of play. Meanwhile in attack, there appeared more intent in the carries, and there was much more structure.
To me, part of this is likely a boot up the proverbial buttocks after last week forcing a response, but I also think that the 10 and 12 selections have an impact. Owen Farrell is a leader, and leads by example, controlling the attack and being physical in defence. Seeing your captain and leader doing this will push you to do the same, while Ellis Genge—removed from the burden of captaincy—was able to focus on his own game and looked much more dangerous, while with extra support from his his pack, Jack Willis was able to have one of his best performances in an England shirt.
But I can’t help think that Tuilagi has an impact too. While Ollie Lawrence has done a fie job at 12 for England, he is not as big as Manu, in the same way that Yoram Moefana was not able to completely replace Jonathan Danty in the early rounds of the tournament, and I would argue that Lawrence’s long-term England future may be at rather than 12, especially as a new generation of physical 12s arrives in Dan Kelly and Seb Atkinson. Tuilagi remains an incredible talent and the only real question marks are around his durability. for a team rebuilding like England are right now, a player of his ability and experience still has a crucial part to play. Will it be enough to see him on the plane to France…?
This year, I’m doing Movember a little different with my Movember Marathon.
You can find all the details on my announcement.
Visit my JustGiving page for updates or if you would like to donate.
Help me to change the face of men’s health!