Ireland fulfills hype with Six Nations Grand Slam

March 18, 2023 GMT
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Ireland's Johnny Sexton, bottom center, holds the trophy as he celebrates with teammates at the end of the Six Nations rugby union international match between Ireland and England at the Aviva Stadium, in Dublin, Saturday, March 18, 2023. Ireland won the match 29-16 to clinch a grand slam and the Six Nations title. (AP Photo/Peter Morrison)
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Ireland's Johnny Sexton, bottom center, holds the trophy as he celebrates with teammates at the end of the Six Nations rugby union international match between Ireland and England at the Aviva Stadium, in Dublin, Saturday, March 18, 2023. Ireland won the match 29-16 to clinch a grand slam and the Six Nations title. (AP Photo/Peter Morrison)

DUBLIN (AP) — Jonathan Sexton is all about team. So when it was time to lift the Six Nations trophy as Ireland captain, he wanted to share the moment.

Coach Andy Farrell rejected the idea.

“I said he mustn’t. He deserves it,” Farrell told the BBC. “What a way for him to go out of the Six Nations.”

Sexton opened his Six Nations career with a win over England in 2010 and closed it the same way on Saturday. The English were put away 29-16 as Ireland mastered the hype and expectations to win the championship and a historic first Grand Slam in Dublin.

The Irish came into the championship as the favorite and swept through it to underline its world No. 1 status and make a huge statement six months out from the Rugby World Cup, where they have never won a knockout match.

A month after beating No. 2 and defending champion France at home, Ireland handled a game-but-inadequate England with a bonus-point win at a packed-out Lansdowne Road.

Ireland’s Dublin home had never witnessed an Irish Grand Slam, nor a title in the Six Nations era, and hundreds of fans remained long after the final whistle to salute their heroes and drink in the history.

Stifled by the English from putting on a show, Ireland resorted to wearing down the visitors. From 10-6 ahead at halftime, Ireland punched in three tries in the last quarter; to Robbie Henshaw, a second for hooker Dan Sheehan, and the last for his replacement Rob Herring.

Sexton, who is retiring after the World Cup in October, was given the perfect send-off in his last Six Nations match with a second Grand Slam and the championship’s all-time point-scoring record. He limped off with six minutes to go to a standing ovation.

“We did not quite nail it, but we did enough,” Sexton said. “It does not feel like the end, there is plenty left in this team.”

Farrell agrees.

“Hopefully, there’s bigger fish to fry for Johnny with the World Cup,” he said. “It’s unbelievable for him to have this moment and lift the trophy.”

England redeemed itself after the hiding at home from France last weekend by fighting hard, but the effort was undermined when fullback Freddie Steward was sent off just before halftime. Steward took some tension with him and the result had an air of inevitability about it.

But Ireland couldn’t ignite the St. Patrick’s weekend celebrations until the late burst of tries capped Ireland’s first Six Nations title since 2018 and its fifth in this century. The previous Grand Slams were in 1948, 2009 and 2018.

“Today was all about delivering, attacking the game and not the occasion,” lock James Ryan said. “There was a bit of pressure but every game you play for Ireland is pressure.

“We were a little off kilter in the first half but that’s good for us. We want to test ourselves and be able to find a way.”

Owen Farrell kicked England to an early 6-0 lead while Ireland was adapting to the pressure from the visitors’ excellent rush defense and breakdown work. Ireland was pushing too many passes and getting slowed in the rucks.

Sexton’s first goal kick earned him his first standing ovation. He left behind a tie with Irish predecessor Ronan O’Gara as the championship’s highest point-scorer. He improved it to 566 points. Farrell was fourth on the list behind Jonny Wilkinson, who helped Farrell recently repair his 47% goalkicking success. Sexton and Farrell both landed four out of four.

Ireland finally converted a try chance in the 33rd from a short lineout. England committed to a rolling maul but, instead, Josh van der Flier snuck in behind and fed inside him Sheehan on a charge to the line.

Seconds before halftime, Ireland fullback Hugo Keenan ran head on into Steward, who turned shoulder first to brace for the collision. That failure to show duty of care for Keenan caused Steward to be sent off by referee Jaco Peyper.

Keenan didn’t return either, failing a head injury assessment during the interval.

Ireland was laboring in the new half to expose the man advantage, and Farrell’s third penalty closed the gap to one point.

Ireland eventually set up an attacking scrum and Henshaw, only recently fit after wrist and hamstring injuries, met a pass from midfield partner Bundee Aki in a gap to score.

Minutes later, back-rower Jack Conan drew two defenders to put Sheehan over for his second try of the match. With Sexton’s extras, the result was safe and Lansdowne Road broke into song.

On a day for hookers, England’s Jamie George scored from their only try chance in a rolling maul, but Ireland had the last say when Sheehan’s replacement Herring burst off a maul and scored.

While the party was underway, Andy Farrell already had an eye on the World Cup in France.

“We’re a good side that has nowhere near reached its potential,” he warned. “We expect our side when we get to the first game in the World Cup to be a lot better than what we are now.” ___

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