Ireland – who broke a run of four straight defeats to England with a terrific performance – ended the game with 13 players as Bundee Aki was red carded for contact to Billy Vunipola’s head with 17 minutes remaining, then Conor Murray was sin-binned due to persistent offending late in the piece.
But by the time Aki was sent off, Ireland led by 20 points, and it was too late for England to mount a meaningful fightback. Ben Youngs scored almost immediately, but England were at sixes and sevens with a chaotic-looking side that saw scrum-half Dan Robson lining up at fly-half, with George Ford subbed and Owen Farrell off for an HIA. Ireland – who produced their best performance under Andy Farrell and gave CJ Stander a wonderful send-off – looked like the team with more players on the field.
Two more penalties from the boot of Johnny Sexton put any doubt about the result to bed, even though Jonny May scored in the corner to cut the margin of defeat to 32-18. England were flattered by the result.
This had felt like a defining game for England, coming at the end of a Championship the reigning champions began so poorly but had built through, until an excellent win over France last weekend. Their players queued up in the week to declare that win a turning point, and evidence of their evolving game. They could not back it up, and now go their separate ways for some months at a low ebb.
England suffered a blow before kick-off, with full-back Max Malins ruled out with an injury picked up in training on Friday. He joined Henry Slade on the sidelines.
That meant that rather than a first start for five years in his preferred position of outside centre, Elliot Daly was shifted to full-back, and Ollie Lawrence came in at centre.
Daly improved as the game wore on but was exposed again at the back, especially when out-jumped by Hugo Keenan in the lead-up to Jack Conan’s try, Ireland’s second. And Lawrence was peripheral again, getting just one touch in the first half. On the bench, Jones had opted for forward George Martin not Paolo Odogwu, meaning the split became 6-2.
The defining aspect of the first half was the sheer control of Ireland’s reunited veteran half-backs, Murray and Sexton, compared to Youngs and Ford – who kicked so wastefully. Robbie Henshaw was superb outside them too, with Ireland excellent across the park. They were rewarded with tries for Keith Earls, a mazy effort, and Jack Conan’s smart close range finish.
England, by contrast, were horribly ill-disciplined, conceding three penalties at the scrum, and it was little surprise to see Jamie George and Ellis Genge on for Luke Cowan-Dickie and Mako Vunipola (who had conceded three penalties) at half-time. With penalties gifted and ball kicked away, it was the same old story for England.
The penalties continued to flow in the second half – with four in the first 10 minutes – and, soon enough, they found themselves another three points back and making two more changes. There was an unforced one, too, when Farrell had to be dragged from the field for an HIA from which he never returned.
Things got no better, and England finished with a penalty count of 14, which told the tale. They have much to consider – and plenty of time to do so.
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