By Padraic Halpin
DUBLIN (Reuters) -Ireland completed their fourth Six Nations Grand Slam with a 29-16 victory over England at a pulsating Aviva Stadium on Saturday, emphatically underlining their status as the world’s top-ranked team heading into September’s World Cup.
The script could not have been better prepared – a chance to seal a first Grand Slam in Dublin on St Patrick’s Day weekend – and Ireland delivered, although it was nervier than they would have liked against an England side reduced to 14 men for the entire second half.
England were within one point of an upset with 20 minutes to go but late tries from Robbie Henshaw, Rob Herring and a second for man of the match Dan Sheehan made sure of Ireland’s 15th championship and fifth since 2009.
“You couldn’t make it up, it’s like living in a dream. We didn’t play our best but bloody hell, what a team. What a group of coaches,” Ireland captain Johnny Sexton, playing in his final Six Nations game, said in a pitchside interview.
“To come here and get a win on St Patrick’s weekend, it’s unbelievable. What a day.”
Andy Farrell’s side were well worthy of the clean sweep, having won every game by 13 points or more, averaged four ties per outing and ending 2022 winners France’s 14-game unbeaten run along the way in the game of the championship.
The coach praised his entire squad for how they dealt with adversity from losing some key men to injury – five in last week’s win against Scotland alone – to grinding out a win when they needed to as they very much did on Saturday.
England on the other hand were seeking to regain some pride after the record 53-10 home defeat by France last week and they were more cohesive in winning a couple of early turnovers and turned their pressure into a deserved 6-0 lead.
While looking a clear threat in attack, Ireland were making uncharacteristic errors. Sexton, whose 19th-minute penalty made him the Six Nations’ highest all-time scorer, later joked that they did the exact opposite of what the coaches told them to.
With England’s penalty count ticking up as they sought to stem the tide, the breakthrough came on 32 minutes. Josh van der Flier peeled off the back of a ruck, found Sheehan with a reverse pass and there was no stopping the explosive hooker once he had the line in his sights.
The bigger turning point arrived eight minutes later though as Freddie Steward struck his opposite number, Ireland fullback Hugo Keenan, with an elbow to the head while in an upright position and was sent off.
If it looked like Ireland would cruise towards a Grand Slam in Dublin, following success in Twickenham (2018), Cardiff (2009) and Belfast (1948), England had other ideas and another Owen Farrell penalty after the break made it 10-9.
It took the try for Henshaw, starting his first game of the championship, for the relief to spread through the stadium with Sheehan’s second all but clinching a first Six Nations title in front of their own fans since 1985.
Jamie George grabbed a consolation try for England before replacement Irish hooker Herring extended the lead again as Ireland made it 22 wins from their last 24 games and the party began.
“I thought we showed a tremendous amount of fight. Obviously the game changed with the card but we still showed a huge amount of fight and stuck in it,” England captain Farrell said.
“We’ve built some foundations over the course of the Six Nations but clearly we want to be a better team.”
The defeat consigned England to fourth place in the table and a third successive Six Nations with more defeats than victories after winning the championship in 2020.
France finished in second place with Scotland in third. Wales were fifth and it was another wooden spoon for Italy.
(Reporting by Padraic HalpinEditing by Toby Davis)