joy of sex Sexton's display handed Eddie Jones the unpalatable task of once more having to eat humble pie
JOHNNY Sexton bid a triumphant adieu to Twickenham – handing Eddie Jones the unpalatable task of once more having to eat his own overcooked pre-match stew of incendiary words.
In a contest uniquely equipped to set Irish pulses racing, Sexton’s final game at the London venue yielded a bonus point victory, setting up a final weekend Six Nations Super Saturday with Andy Farrell’s side in title contention.
France requiring a Parisian triumph over England remain odds-on favourites, but any unlikely Gallic slip up would open the door for Ireland to seize glory with an Aviva Stadium victory over Scotland.
It wasn’t an aesthetic delight; Ireland’s scrum was demolished, and they struggled until the closing minutes to inflict the decisive wounds a near 79 minute extra man advantage demanded.
There were outstanding Irish performances: James Lowe, Caelan Doris, Josh van Der Flier, Hugo Keenan, the timeless Sexton and official Man of the Match Jamison Gibson-Park all shone in the broiling Saxon bearpit.
But it was Jones’s pre-match demand for savage English physicality which helped Ireland as much as anything. He had promised England would get in Ireland’s faces – unfortunately for him his fired-up second-row Charlie Ewels took him literally.England’s brutality did not come out of a clear blue sky. The signposts had been on every Twickenham approach road.
Jones, (inset) feeding his own insatiable appetite for mischievous, spiky wind-ups, had cautioned that “Ireland would encounter a physicality they hadn’t seen before.”
The former Irish coach Eddie O’Sullivan concurred, forecasting a “bar-room brawl”.
In selecting Peter O’Mahony and Bundee Aki ahead of Jack Conan and Robbie Henshaw, Andy Farrell was acknowledging the urgent requirement to match the carnivorous intent of the Saxon maneaters. But who could have anticipated that England’s tactic would so calamitously backfire, yielding a game-defining red card just 82 seconds into the contest?
The bar-room brawl prompted an immediate and, for the home side, a devastating intervention from the sheriff.
Ewels smashed his 6’7 frame into James Ryan, he was late, dangerously high and the sickening head on head collision would end both skyscraping locks’ afternoon.
It was a cheap shot, unworthy of the occasion, and it immediately placed Jones and his team on the backfoot.
Ryan staggered punch-drunk from the field; his English counterpart compelled to talk the walk of shame after referee Mathieu Raynal reviewed the destructive impact.The TV cameras panned to Jones in the stand: His haunted disposition was that of a condemned man who has just learned that one last bid to overturn his death sentence had been rejected.
Ireland were initially in a hurry to usher the alienating Aussie to the electric chair.
When Sexton’s penalty was almost immediately followed by a Lowe try, England found themselves on life-support just five minutes into an already breathless contest.
The try was a triumph of precision, pace and width, one that showcased the freakish athleticism of Dan Sheehan. Sheehan is a 6’2”, 17 stone-plus goliath with the balance and deft footwork of a Strictly Come Dancing champion.
Injury to his Leinster colleague Ronan Kelleher had thrust him onto this storied stage and in that opening quarter the 23-year-old Dubliner was a force of nature in open play.However, in the set-piece the very opposite was the case.
Ireland’s front-row – even the inestimable Tadhg Furlong - was beset by piercing questions in the scrum as England gradually established an unlikely foothold in the contest via their pulverising power. They celebrated each scrum penalty like a World Cup win, the 82,000 crowd responding to their murderous dynamism.
Marcus Smith kicked two penalties as Ireland, their set-piece stuttering in Andrew Porter’s absence, lost all rhythm and cohesion.
There were eye-catching moments: Cian Healy stealing the ball from Jamie George on the Irish try line, Keenan offloading beautifully to set Ireland surging forwards, Sexton executing his trademark wraparound.
This was a last working afternoon at Twickenham for Sexton, the playmaker having announced that his titanic career in green would end after next year’s World Cup.
Sexton is an obsessive, addicted to the competitive exhilaration of these brutally demanding afternoons, unafraid to propel himself to, and sometimes beyond, his physical limits.
His fevered reaction when Keenan secured Ireland’s second try shortly before half-time was that of a man hypnotised by the rhythms of a mid-March battle guaranteed to stir Celtic blood.
The touchdown was a reward for Ireland’s refusal to settle for an easy three points in front of the posts.
Gibson-Park gambled on a quick-tap penalty, Keenan read his intent and slalomed to five points.
But England continued to summon an otherworldly effort, advancing to another world of physicality – but now applying their bestial strength legitimately. Smith turned his pack’s bloodthirsty surges into points, his fifth penalty on the hour levelling the score at 15-15.
A reversal that would have grievously wounded Farrell’s tenure loomed into startling focus.
Twickenham was aflame, the home support sensing a hugely against the odds triumph was within their grasp.
But for all England’s effort, or rather despite it, the extra man would make a huge difference down the stretch as substitutes Jack Conan and Finlay Bealham exploited England’s exhaustion to grab gamechanging tries.
Ireland, aided by those loose words Jones so frequently serves up, had found a way to keep the Six Nations alive into St Patrick’s week.
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