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Ireland reignited the St Patrick’s weekend celebrations by clinching grand slam success in Dublin for the first time with a battling 29-16 bonus-point victory over 14-man England.
The world’s top-ranked side were odds-on favourites to sweep aside their rivals to seal the Six Nations title and but were made to work hard for the country’s fourth championship clean sweep overall.
Dan Sheehan’s two tries and further scores from Robbie Henshaw and Rob Herring ultimately elevated Andy Farrell’s class of 2023 alongside the heroes of 1948, 2009 and 2018 on a historic occasion at a rowdy Aviva Stadium.
England played half of the match a man light after Freddie Steward was controversially sent off on the stroke of half-time following an arm to the head of Hugo Keenan and did their best to spoil the party.
Visiting skipper Owen Farrell, restored at fly-half, gave his father’s side some cause for concern by kicking three penalties, while Jamie George added a late consolation score as Steve Borthwick’s men showed a steely resolve following last weekend’s record-breaking humiliation at the hands of France.
Yet a bruising Test match belonged to the hosts, with Ireland skipper Johnny Sexton moving clear of Ronan O’Gara as the competition’s all-time record points scorer with a penalty and three conversions to take his overall tally to 566 on his Six Nations swansong before retirement later this year.
Defending champions France had snatched top spot in the standings earlier in the day courtesy of a 41-28 bonus-point victory over Wales to pile the pressure on Ireland.
England, meanwhile, crossed the Irish Sea wounded by last weekend’s record-breaking humiliation at the hands of the French, which emphatically extinguished their title hopes. They delivered on their vow to come out fighting.
Ireland could celebrate an historic grand slam
In-form Ireland were never going to have everything their own way and the scrappy opening exchanges were punctuated with errors and turnovers as both sides sought a foothold amid a series of kicking exchanges.
A pair of early Owen Farrell penalties heightened a palpable nervous tension in the air, before Sexton halved England’s lead with his milestone kick just before the midway point.
Ireland orchestrated some decent pressure in enemy territory but initially struggled to slip into their free-flowing rhythm or gain control against dogged opposition showing no signs of rolling over.
The hosts eventually put a meaningful dent on the scoreboard seven minutes before the break when a well-executed line-out move allowed Josh Van Der Flier to send Sheehan rampaging for the line to spark the crowd.
England lost Charlie Ewels to a red card inside 82 seconds of last year’s 32-15 Twickenham defeat to the Irish. And they were left facing a similarly uphill task 12 months on as they went into the break 10-6 and a man down after referee Jaco Peyper dismissed Steward for a robust challenge which forced off rival full-back Keenan.
Freddie Steward’s red card was a controversial moment in the game
Galvanised by the red card, the visitors reduced the deficit to a single point through another Farrell kick in the second period, with their penalty wins now being celebrated more fervently and the high stakes sparking a couple of flashpoints.
Ireland desperately needed to stretch the scoreboard to capitalise on their numerical advantage and kill off any chance of being forced to face an anxious closing period.
Henshaw alleviated the mounting tension by crossing in the 62nd minute on his first start of this year’s competition, before Sheehan claimed his second score shortly after.
George bulldozed over seven minutes from time as England continued to plug away for pride.
But Borthwick’s men finished the match with just 13 men as flanker Jack Ellis was sin-binned late on, before replacement Ireland hooker Herring stretched for the line to complete the scoring. A deafening roar greeted the full-time whistle.