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six nations HSE - Henshaw, Sexton and Earls - provide the perfect vaccine for Ireland's despair

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Keith Earls of Ireland is congratulated by team-mates after scoring in Ireland's victory over England

Keith Earls of Ireland is congratulated by team-mates after scoring in Ireland's victory over England

Keith Earls of Ireland is congratulated by team-mates after scoring in Ireland's victory over England

WHO could have foretold it, the HSE – Henshaw, Sexton, Earls – cast as the pin-up boys of a glorious Irish reawakening?

A triumph of innovation, cohesion and quick thinking, the antithesis of their dull, sloppy, often inept namesake, the trio inoculated Irish rugby – and embattled coach Andy Farrell – with an urgently required vaccine against despair.

At the end of an underwhelming Six Nations, one that took his Irish tenure to the brink of ICU, Farrell can breathe again.

The Englishman, having avoided a worst championship finish in eight years, should send a thank you letter to the HSE for providing him with the oxygen of a victory that diverts him from a potentially grisly fate.

This was a win that hadn’t been remotely signposted by the narrowed dimensions of the first two years of the Farrell reign, nor by four previous games against England lost by a demoralising 131-78 aggregate.

Henshaw, Sexton and Earls, a combined 95 years, delivered a team increasingly desperate for a sense of cohesion, a throwback performance that ran England ragged.

Here was a two-legged version of the slaughter the Irish inflicted upon their hosts at Cheltenham: Not since the imperishable Croke Park pulverising of the Saxons in 2007, had the home side enjoyed such a dominant afternoon.

Ireland finished with 13 men – Bundee Aki sent off, Conor Murray yellow-carded – and still galloped for the winner’s enclosure.

They were ruthless and intelligent and bursting with reborn passion.

In keeping with the equine theme, there was even the exclamation mark of three of Sexton’s points coming from a penalty won by a man named Furlong.

Henshaw was a colossus, an angry pit-bull, physically unbending, ferociously aggressive, as uncontainable as the mighty Shannon flowing through his native Athlone.

Sexton stepped again into that imperturbable zone to which only the supreme playmakers have access.

He double jobbed, one minute conducting the orchestra, the next cocking his right boot to fire the old, familiar killshots.

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The Ireland team celebrate following their victory over England

The Ireland team celebrate following their victory over England

The Ireland team celebrate following their victory over England

By the end of a flawless afternoon from the tee, he had brought his goal kicking tally for this Six Nations to 24 from 25, for a stunning 96% return.

Earls scored a dazzling try, the 34th of his international career, one that will feature prominently in the highlight reel of his many exceptional days in green.

The Munster comet combined dazzling footwork and the kind of breathtaking, earth-scorching acceleration that prompts spectators to bid telephone-number figures for a ringside seat at the Olympic 100m final.

It was the first try a starting Irish wing had delivered in this Six Nations, an indication of the latent attacking potential which has been hidden over two seasons of depressing drift.

Earls and Sexton combined for another touchdown – the latter showcasing his unrivalled vision to kick to the corner, the winger somehow avoiding touch to finish – only for the try to be ruled out for an earlier knock on.

Ireland played with the venom Jacob Stockdale had called for before the game, but married it to poise, adventure and the kind of cutting edge many feared lost forever.

Even when Aki was red carded with a quarter of the contest remaining, the home side, rather than buckling, redoubled their efforts and strode boldly for the horizon.

Ben Youngs and Johnny May would avail of the numerical advantage to narrow the gap, but this was the kind of statement victory the Irish side so desperately required.

The watching Warren Gatland will have noted several gargantuan Irish shifts – led by the phenomenal Henshaw.

Jack Conan, a surprise starter after featuring for a total of just 33 minutes in the four previous games, was immense.

His volleyball tap at the line-out launched Earls like a flaming rocket toward the English line for that opening try.

And Katie Taylor’s fellow Bray native then delivered a knockout punch of his own by burrowing over for the second five-pointer, after Hugo Keenan soared to pluck a Sexton kick from the heavens.

Tadhg Beirne franked his Team of the Six Nations credentials, that blue scrumcap omnipresent in the thunderous collisions.

He is a Lion in waiting.

His namesake, the aforementioned Furlong, backed up his Strictly Come Dancing sidestep from last weekend with a display that confirmed he is back to his A-list best.

What a difference two hours makes.

The sense, as kick-off time approached, and with neither Grand Slam nor Six Nations title on the line, was that an 80-minute referendum on Farrell’s future beckoned.

Any suspicions that the springtime Aviva turf might turn to quicksand and sink the Englishman quickly disappeared.

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Jacob Stockdale of Ireland is tackled by Ben Youngs and Will Stuart of England

Jacob Stockdale of Ireland is tackled by Ben Youngs and Will Stuart of England

Jacob Stockdale of Ireland is tackled by Ben Youngs and Will Stuart of England

Ireland had withered on Farrell’s watch, a team unable to sustain the glories that came in such a rush in 2018, when a Grand Slam was served up with All Black sauce.

The fall from the heights which began in Joe Schmidt’s final season (when Farrell was defensive coach) has been as jarring as any endured at Prestbury Park last week.

There were signs of a reawakening in Edinburgh last week, but still Ireland came into the game under a cloud, summed up by former Leinster coach Matt Williams’s accusation that Farrell’s tactics were “abjectly unimaginative.”

Youngs, the English scrum-half, had also delivered a damning verdict on the home team’s one-dimensional play: Stop Johnny Sexton and you stop Ireland.

But England failed to stop Johnny as the HSE offered a jaded nation a belated vision of a brighter rugby future.

And a sense that a kind of sporting lockdown – one that had seen both the soccer and oval-ball national teams lose their way and tested the stamina of their support – might, at last, give way to happier days of freedom.

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