England ditch demons to end Ireland’s Grand Slam charge

LONDON — Under the clear night sky came one of the biggest upsets in recent rugby history. Marcus Smith’s 81st minute match-winning drop goal was a rugby exorcism, as England halted Ireland’s seemingly inevitable Grand Slam charge, and ditched some demons in the process.

It feels like we’ve been waiting for this England performance since they beat the All Blacks in the semifinal of the 2019 World Cup. This group of players has been booed in the past couple of years, but this time the Twickenham stands were a scene of sheer elation at full time. As Smith peeled away to celebrate his match-winning kick — one which secured the 23-22 victory — the old ground was bouncing, to the extent you could feel the whole stadium shift under your feet.

Smith’s drop goal will be replayed time and time again. It was cheered just as loudly on the replay shown soon after the match finished as it was in real time — and for those who have been through the years of underperformance, false dawns and frustration, this felt like a statement victory. Any composure was completely lost on the bench. Players ignored bumps and bruises to celebrate, as pandemonium ensued on the field, the bench, the stands and surely in pubs all over the county.

There were heroic performances — Ben Earl was monumental — but this was a victory for the collective whole rather than individuals. England finished with 14 men — Chandler Cunningham-South was off injured — while Immanuel Feyi-Waboso was hopping on one leg in the final throes. But still they played. As they hammered away at Ireland’s line, 22-20 down, for one final shot at winning the match, you feared the worst. We’ve seen these moments escape them in the past — a pass finds touch, a player knocks on. But with a penalty advantage behind them, there was clarity and precision from Danny Care — on his 100th cap — to tee up Smith with the match-winning moment.

Ireland will lament a missed opportunity. The buildup to this match had them as overwhelming favourites, with England rank outsiders on their own turf. England came into this with two wins from three and a chastening defeat to Scotland last weekend, while Ireland had already racked up victories over France, Italy and Wales.

Ireland have established themselves as the benchmark for teams and rugby-playing nations in this hemisphere. Andy Farrell has moulded a ruthless winning machine, and it seemed like this Six Nations title was already prebooked to remain in Dublin. Such was Irish dominance across the opening three rounds and the hangover from last year, the championship threatened to become a two-tier tournament: Ireland and the rest.

But this was an atypical Irish performance: they made sloppy errors at the breakdown and set piece and whenever they had a chance to dent England’s self-belief, they let their foot off the pedal and England pounced.

“Look at the quality of the players they’ve got and certainly when you’re coming off the back of a defeat, it concentrates the mind a little bit,” Andy Farrell said afterwards. “I thought they were super tonight, they were physical, challenging on the gainline and played a nice brand of rugby.”

England took the lead after just three minutes as a George Furbank dart helped tee up the field position to put Ollie Lawrence over in the corner. England continued to dominate territory and possession, but Ireland dented away at the scoreboard to go into the break 12-8 up, with England having another Lawrence try disallowed for a Furbank knock-on.

Ireland started the second half in the ascendancy with James Lowe flying over into the corner after 43 minutes. But just four minutes later, England had their second try with Furbank scoring as England exploited an overlap with Sam Underhill and Maro Itoje putting him over. A yellow card to Peter O’Mahony just before the hour mark did little to help Ireland’s cause, and two minutes later the outstanding Earl powered over.

England were linking together phase play, making yards and punishing Ireland, playing with fluidity and purpose. But this Ireland team is a special bunch, drawing on boundless experience of winning these arm-wrestle matches, and Lowe’s try in the 72nd minute gave them the 22-20 advantage. Jack Crowley’s conversion was off-target, and so it came down to a battle of mind over matter in the final throes.

England’s attack stuttered a couple of times and the spectre of previous valiant defeats haunted the place, but then Feyi-Waboso darted into Irish territory, England kept the ball alive and Smith sat in the pocket and dropped the match-winning goal. Job done.

This was also a victory for England’s management. Steve Borthwick spoke in the week about how he felt the pressure of the shirt at times weighed England down against Scotland, but back at home, they handled it brilliantly. His selection calls paid off. George Martin got through an incredible amount of work in the second row, and his selection meant Ollie Chessum could maraud more from blindside. He was outstanding — playing at No.8 in the scrum — as was Lawrence in the centres, getting through 14 tackles and also punishing Ireland with ball in hand.

Furbank was also assured at fullback while Alex Mitchell’s return to scrum-half brought zip to England’s attack. And then there was Feyi-Waboso, the young winger who 10 months ago was playing rugby in the third tier. Now he’s a Test winger, a ruthlessly dangerous attacker with ball in hand and a bag of skills to get the ground on their feet.

During the buildup, Jamie George was talking about how England wanted to “defend” their home “like every Englishman would”. And that’s what happened. This was an England team bored of taking a step forward, and then one back, and instead it was them standing up and embracing the expectation.

Ireland are a win away from retaining the Six Nations, and after the disappointment of Saturday subsides, a second title in as many years will be just-reward for this brilliant team. England still have a chance of winning the title — relying on a Scotland win in Dublin next weekend — but this must be the foundation moment for this team.

If they flounder in France next week then this win could be cast as a rarity. That simply cannot happen. We now know what this group of players is capable of. This thunderbolt moment must be the base from which they build a team capable of challenging for the Six Nations on an annual basis. But tonight, Twickenham and the surrounding areas will be a scene of relief and celebration after witnessing a match where England found their roar again.