It wasn’t all plain sailing in the second half, but Ireland delivered the performance required to finish a thrilling season in style.
There was a lot to like and plenty to love about Ireland’s final flourish in the Six Nations tournament today!
With four wins already to their credit, and the Championship under their belts, the Irish needed to defeat England at Twickenham to achieve a clean sweep. And they set about the job in superb style, with a lovely Johnny Sexton garryowen putting the ball on a plate for Gary Ringrose, after England’s Anthony Watson fumbled the catch.
Complete with a Sexton conversion, Ireland were 7-0 ahead after just seven minutes. It was the perfect riposte to England manager Eddie Jones’ stupidly racist comments about the “scummy Irish” which surfaced during the week.
And from there on, through the first half, there was some superb rugby from the Irish, with tries by C. J. Stander and Jacob Stockdale bringing Ireland in 21-5 to the good at the interval, despite the loss of ever O'Mahony to the sin bin after 28 minutes.
The second half became more of a war of attrition for the Irish. Jack McGrath replaced Cian Healy. Joey Carbery replaced Sexton. Jordan Larmour came in for Bundee Aki.It was the 60th minute before Ireland scored again, with a Conor Murray penalty.
And there were five more changes, allowing England to come more into it, but they huffed and puffed. There was little chance that they were going to steal the show – and they didn’t, despite Elliot Daly grabbing a second try. In the end, Ireland stood firm at 24-15, England’s tally boosted by a last gasp try.
Who was the real Man of the Match? We liked Hot Press fave Bundee Aki’s (pictured) phenomenal burst before C. J. Stander’s try. And Stander himself was immense, racking up a towering 23 carries. Dan Leavy was also a monster in the tackle, delivering 16 in all. But it made complete sense when the award was given to Tadhg Furlonng, who was at the heart of Ireland’s dominance in the scrum – in addition to which he contributed 14 tackles in all.
Full back Rob Kearney admitted afterwards that he was speechless – well, almost!
"It is so special – it is hard to put into words just yet,” he said. "We put a massive amount of work in. We are over the moon, it's incredible. We feel on our day we can compete with the very best."
It's a sentiment with which no one could, or would, disagree!
Captain Rory Best pointed to Ireland’s explosive start as the key to their ultimate victory – but he too was left struggling for words.
"Right from the off we tried to attack England with and without the ball,” he said. “Words can't describe how delighted we are today."
The players may be feeling shell-shocked and unable to speak – but not so fans of "scummy" Irish rugby. What we saw today was another commanding display by a team which is richly talented, as well as being superbly organised. Ireland are now indisputably the No.2 team in the world. The question is: can they go on and really challenge New Zealand for the No.1 position.
Onwards – and upwards hopefully!