Five takeaways from Ireland v England as Johnny Sexton leads his side to Grand Slam glory

Johnny Sexton for Ireland after Grand Slam 6 Nations win over England Credit: Alamy

After a 29-16 win for Ireland over England in their Six Nations game, here are our five takeaways from Saturday’s game at the Aviva Stadium.

The top line

Ireland ended a memorable season for them as they predictably won the Grand Slam against 14-man England, who were pushed to the top by the visitors in a remarkable game in Dublin.

It was far from a classic Irish exhibition; England, chastised by criticism from all quarters in the week leading up to the game, emerged and emerged big. They looked transformed after a breakdown and contact and, with Owen Farrell back at the helm by 10am, were far more in control of the game than they were against France a week ago.

Still, the best sides know when to win ugly and Ireland manfully stayed on course, aided by immense home support and sheer determination to complete their first Grand Slam since 2018. With Johnny Sexton and Jamison Gibson-Park in great control, their set pieces, discipline and greater efficiency in the red zone were the cornerstones of their victory – a win largely fueled by power and confidence.

A brace for Dan Sheehan and one each for Robbie Henshaw and Rob Herring demonstrated Ireland’s greater firepower, but this was far from a complete performance. Victory was everything for Ireland on Saturday but as they look back on their performance there will be concerns over the problems England caused them in the breakdown.

Nonetheless, four years of impressive growth have reached a climax and Ireland are the worthy Six Nations champions of 2023.

turning points

England have conceded 13 penalties against Ireland’s seven and when that happens in a friendly it will always be uphill. Still, two key turning points saw full-back Freddie Steward red for a rugby collision with Hugo Keenan, and later in the game Jack Willis was notably yellow carded for a tip tackle, despite the initial boost caused by another player and despite Willis making the man safe brought to the ground.

The Steward incident came as a surprise for a number of reasons – firstly, the collision was caused by Keenan as much as Steward, when he stumbled and fell into a fairly passive England full-back who was obviously trying nothing but a prop himself for effect.

There must be a question of foul play – was there one? It’s hard to see what exactly the foul play would be – no tackle was attempted so no weapons, Steward didn’t change direction and there was the clear mitigation of Keenan sliding deeper into Steward. How high was the risk? Steward was certainly passive in the contact, so it’s hard to argue that he caused a high level of danger. Actually, one could argue that Steward just stopped to prevent a tackle, but Jaco Peyper saw it differently and showed the Englishman a rather stunning red card amid the roar of the home crowd.

While there is a zero-tolerance climate when it comes to headbutts, that doesn’t mean the protocols mandated by World Rugby shouldn’t be followed – and it’s fair to ask whether or not they were followed in this case.

Irish resilience

Nothing encapsulates the resilience and spirit of Ireland more than the greying, limping figure of Sexton and it was fitting that in what was likely his last Six Nations game in Dublin he led his team to victory with a personal performance of some stature. In doing so, he took Ronan O’Gara’s Six Nations points record with him and leaves the Aviva Stadium as arguably the greatest Irish fly-half in history.

His contribution to Leinster and Ireland cannot be underestimated; 114 caps, six caps for British and Irish Lions, 1061 points and two Grand Slams place him in the game’s elite, but both Ireland and he know he’s not done yet; He hobbled away with a torn hijacker near the end of the game and Ireland will be sweating on their fitness with big games coming up for both the province and the country.

What’s interesting is that Sexton’s resilience rubs off on others around him – players like Peter O’Mahony, Andrew Porter and Henshaw – they all have the fly-half’s signature traits – commitment, passion, anger and, most importantly, confidence.

Ireland didn’t come through this evening with their accustomed agility – they came through with the qualities mentioned above – and nobody epitomizes that behavior more than Jonathan Jeremiah Sexton, who is now undoubtedly a very great player of all time.

Shuffle forward

The goal line might not suggest it, but this was a small step forward for England in terms of their progression under Steve Borthwick. Nick Easter commented in this week’s Expert Witness that the lack of struggle, structure and breakdown against France were areas that were key to England’s recovery.

The visitors strengthened remarkably in these areas, with a huge defensive shift led by the standout player on the pitch, Willis. Alongside him, David Ribbans showed some deft touches to clear the collapse and Maro Itoje looked back on something close to his set standard.

In truth, England may have won the slugfest, with Manu Tuilagi underscoring their friendly quality with an impressive display of physicality. However, it was her desperation in contact that led to an overplay, which in turn caused the number of penalties against her to mount. They failed to pressure Ireland’s lineout from set pieces, giving their breakaways plenty of room to operate. On the first Sheehan attempt, Josh van der Flier pulled Alex Dombrandt far out of his canal to slip the hooker through; The first rule of a number eight defending this channel is ‘stay in the ball’ and Dombrandt didn’t, buying the bait move and leaving the hole open.

In defence, we saw fabulous kicking performance from both half-backs, but this was diluted by Steward’s absence from pursuit for half the game. Farrell was rock solid at 10, and even if he missed five or six tackles (he completed 12), those were because he quickly went from 10 to pressure – something that devastated the fluency of Irish handling.

England now have a few more pillars to build on. They’re missing some world-class players – Lawes, Curry, Cowan-Dickie and Mercer in France. However, things are looking slightly more promising for Steve Borthwick tonight than this time a week ago.


Ireland will be concerned about the pressure England put on the collision and collapse and how frantic their passing and execution became as a result. Without Tadhg Beirne they lacked the advantage in ruck time and Andy Farrell will be looking to figure out how to deal with such an aggressive defense in time for the Worlds. He’ll also be concerned about getting through the middle of the pages if the width didn’t work. But those are small things when you’ve just won a Grand Slam and you’re number one in the world.

For England, the biggest message will be to retain power, lose penalties and increase penetration. They got a lot of the fundamentals right in this performance and that will be the platform that moves forward, but bluntly they never looked like they could tear Ireland down with ball in hand or with phased running. But these parts of the game can be screwed on and improved; Tonight, England’s main work will be remembering the good things they did in Dublin, using that accomplishment as a benchmark of physicality and strength, and simply building their future on the small platform of hope they are in created Dublin.

CONTINUE READING: Six Nations: Ireland secures Grand Slam after hard-fought win over 14-man England

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