England stormed into Dublin and ended Ireland’s Grand Slam defence at the first hurdle, notching a bonus-point win, handing Joe Schmidt’s side their first home defeat since the All Blacks in November 2016, and ending their 12-game winning streak at home.
Eddie Jones’ men thoroughly deserved their victory thanks to a sublime performance in which their kicking game saw Schmidt’s team tactically outclassed, while John Mitchell’s defence utterly dominated the Irish ball-carriers.
Ireland had very few answers as Owen Farrell masterfully steered the England ship, with Schmidt’s men scoring only two tries in response,
the first largely due to poor England discipline – the only real weakness in their superb display – and the second very much of the consolation variety.
Schmidt’s risky decision to pick Robbie Henshaw in the 15 shirt backfired as the English kicking game toyed with a man who has been only a centre in recent years, while the returning Conor Murray was far from his best in an uncharacteristically poor showing longside the rusty Johnny Sexton.
The fact that Ireland couldn’t even muster a losing bonus point against four-try England was a major disappointment and Schmidt has major work to do ahead of next weekend’s visit to Scotland. 2019, a World Cup year, has not started well.
England, meanwhile, will be hugely buoyed by this focused, aggressive and intelligent performance as they look to be back on track to compete for the Six Nations title. Mako Vunipola was man of the match in a brilliant effort from the English pack, boosted by the return of his brother Billy, while halfbacks Ben Youngs and Farrell were far more assured than their opposite numbers.
The back three of Elliot Daly, Jack Nowell and Jonny May was electric, while Manu Tuilagi brought power to midfield alongside Henry Slade’s classy touches. The four tries were well earned by Jones’ men.
England’s start was ferocious as they scored in the third minute with their first attack.
Tuilagi carried directly over the tail of the lineout before England bounced back to their left intelligently to test Ireland’s alertness. They then required meaty carries through phase play in the Irish 22, before Billy Vuniopola offloaded out of a Bundee Aki tackle.
With Ireland’s defence caught off guard, out-half Farrell fired a superb double skip pass to Daly in the left-hand five-metre channel – with Keith Earls very narrow – for the fullback to calmly draw in Henshaw and send May over in the corner.
Farrell coolly converted from the touchline, but England’s poor discipline allowed Ireland to dig their way into the game, Kyle Sinckler failing to roll away from a tackle and Sexton drawing Ireland back to 3-7.
Openside Tom Curry had a headless moment in the 13th minute, tackling Earls late after he had kicked ahead, and giving referee Jerome Garces an easy yellow card decision.
Ireland, though, failed to score until Curry had actually returned to the pitch,with James Ryan and Josh van der Flier knocking-on in forced attacking efforts and the Irish midfield far too lateral with ball in hand against the strong England defence.
Curry was only back from the sin bin when Ireland did finally cross the whitewash – an offside penalty against Jamie George allowing Schmidt’s side into the right-hand corner.
Ireland’s decision to ignore the kickable three points was vindicated when, after the initial maul drive was stopped just short, loosehead Healy powered over from closerange, with captain Rory Best latching on to aid his progress.
Sexton converted from wide on the right for a 10-7 Ireland lead in the 26th minute, but England showed composure to shift in front before the break. Their kicking game was causing havoc, both in exploiting Henshaw in the air and finding grass in the backfield to force him into uncomfortable situations.
A clever Henry Slade grubber led to Henshaw slicing a panicked left-footed kick into touch to provide England with the platform for their second try.
Again, Tuilagi set the platform with a hard carry before the English bounced back against the grain to the right and used to pullback passes to give Daly time to slide another grubber in behind Ireland.
Stockdale turned to gather but as he attempted to do so while crossing Ireland’s tryline under pressure from Nowell, the Ulsterman endured the nightmare of losing the ball to his left and Daly pounced on it to score.
Farrell’s conversion was accurate and he then added a penalty on the stroke of half-time, just after Mako Vunipola had correctly had a possible try ruled out for double movement following a crooked Best throw into an Irish lineout five metres out.
England’s 17-10 lead at the break was deserved, and they kept the pressure early on in the second half as Ireland – who lost Earls to injury at the break – turned to a short kicking game – chip, grubber, cross-field – in a bid to break down their ferocious defence.
Ireland’s efforts without the ball came to the fore in a massive defensive effort 10 minutes into the second half as Ringrose hit Farrell with a sublime ball-and-all tackle to force it loose on the 15 phase in the Irish 22, the home side hacking ahead and Stockdale’s chasing forcing the retreating Slade into knocking-on on his own 22 line.
Ireland’s subsequent scrum attack was direct and dragged another penalty out of the English, Sinckler tackling Ringrose high, for Sexton to slot for 13-17 with 35 minutes left.
England’s pack was hit by the loss of Maro Itoje to injury just after George Kruos had been replaced by Courtney Lawes, meaning sub back row Nathan Hughes was forced into the second row.
Sexton gave the English a chance to steady themselves when he was penalised for hands in the ruck – sloppy amidst a disciplined Irish performance – but Farrell surprisingly missed from 40 metres out.
Undeterred, England continued to thrive on Irish errors as Ringrose knocked on in a midfield carry to give the visitors an attacking scrum near the halfway line.
Two big skip pass from Youngs and Slade found May down the left touchline and his run dragged Henshaw up from the backfield, with May exploiting the space by chipping ahead.
With Stockdale late arriving from the far side, Slade scorched onto the ball to touch down – the TMO confirming he wasn’t ahead of May when he kicked – and England led 22-13 after Farrell’s conversion attempt was wide although the pass to May in the first place looked forward and it proved to be the crucial turning point as it put England out of sight.
The England out-half did, however, fire over another three points off the tee in the closing 10 minutes as Ireland’s effort petered out.
The misery concluded with Slade intercepting a forced Sexton pass to Henshaw inside the Ireland 22 for the bonus-point score, with Farrell putting the cherry on top.
Ireland managed a consolation score through sub scrum-half John Cooney after replacement hooker Sean Cronin’s break, but it mattered little as Ireland now get ready for a trip to Murrayfield to take on Scotland with plenty of questions to answer after this very poor showing against an England side that have got off to a winning start with a bonus point as well, something that few would have predicted before the game started.
Tries: Cian Healy, Sean Cronin
Conversions: Johnny Sexton [2 from 2]
Penalties: Johnny Sexton [2 from 2]
Tries: Jonny May, Elliot Daly, Jonny May, Henry Slade
Conversions: Owen Farrell [3 from 4]
Penalties: Owen Farrell [2 from 3]
Robbie Henshaw; Keith Earls (Jordan Larmour ‘HT), Garry Ringrose (Joey Carbery ’73), Bundee Aki, Jacob Stockdale; Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray (John Cooney ’76); Cian Healy (Dave Kilcoyne ’62), Rory Best (captain) (Sean Cronin ’72), Tadhg Furlong (Andrew Porter ’62); Devin Toner (Quinn Roux ’57), James Ryan; Peter O’Mahony, Josh van der Flier, CJ Stander (Sean O’Brien ’65).
Elliot Daly; Jack Nowell (Chris Ashton ’74), Henry Slade, Manu Tuilagi (George Ford ’76), Jonny May; Owen Farrell (captain), Ben Youngs; Mako Vunipola (Ellis Genge ’76), Jamie George (Luke Cowan-Dickie ’73), Kyle Sinckler (Harry Williams ’65); Maro Itoje (Nathan Hughes ’55), George Kruis (Courtney Lawes ’52); Mark Wilson, Tom Curry, Billy Vunipola.
Replacements: Dan Robson.
Referee: Jerome Garces [FFR].