DUBLIN (AP) — England is back and its reputation restored after upending Ireland 32-20 in the defending Six Nations champion’s Lansdowne Road stronghold on Saturday.
Following its worst championship finish in 31 years, England opened this campaign an eight-point underdog to the mighty Irish, but subdued the home side with aggressive defense and stealthy tries to win in Dublin for the first time in six years.
Ireland was unbeaten in 14 home matches in the Six Nations since 2013, and, overall, on a national-record 12 successive home wins since 2016, including a first home defeat of New Zealand only three months ago, after which they were regarded as the best rugby team in the world.
But New Zealand, and England coach Eddie Jones again in the buildup, warned Ireland that it was harder being the hunted than the hunter.
As the hunter, England was ruthless. It hadn’t scored a try in Dublin in eight years, and bagged one after just 94 seconds. Ireland settled down, but England finished the first half stronger and continued to stress Ireland to the point where it earned a bonus-point four tries.
Ireland was limited to two tries, one at the death when England was already celebrating in a stadium quickly draining of Irish fans.
In a game of only four line breaks — two each — England’s line speed was the more impressive and consistent. The Irish were given no room or time to breathe, and couldn’t even count on free errors by England, who conceded just eight penalties.
Green jerseys were scythed down and Irish playmaker Jonathan Sexton, world rugby’s best player in 2018, was reduced to shaking his head and conceding England’s fourth try.
Meanwhile, England forwards Billy and Mako Vunipola, playing a test for the first time since June, and Manu Tuilagi, making his first Six Nations start in six years, battered the Irish line, softening it up so the tries were shared by backs Henry Slade, Jonny May and Elliot Daly.
Prop Mako Vunipola led England’s personal tackle count with 25, followed by flanker Mark Wilson with 21. Slade led the backs with 11 as England stopped Ireland from getting its ball-hogging phases going and turned over the ball 14 times.
England had just ended a five-match losing streak when former New Zealand coach John Mitchell was hired to take over the defense. Since then, England has beaten South Africa, Australia, and Ireland, and lost to New Zealand by one point and conceded just over one try per game. Suddenly back in the title talk, England’s visit to Wales on Feb. 23 has become pivotal.
A quick lineout by England caught Ireland not quite set, and Tuilagi, only playing because Ben Te’o was injured, and Billy Vunipola kept Ireland in retreat before Farrell threw a double miss-out pass left to fullback Daly, who sent in May after 94 seconds.
A Sexton penalty rewarded Ireland getting into its groove, and another reward came moments later when England flanker Tom Curry was sin-binned for a late tackle on Keith Earls. But Ireland couldn’t take advantage of an extra man.
It took Ireland so long to breach England’s defense that Curry was back on the field when prop Cian Healy burrowed over. Sexton converted from wide out for 10-7.
England scored when nothing seemed on. Daly, chosen for his attacking prowess ahead of the defensive prowess of Mike Brown, grubbered through the line. Ireland wing Jacob Stockdale juggled the ball and lost it when he was put down by Jack Nowell. Following up, Daly dropped on the loose ball for England’s second try.
The English could have had a third try on halftime, but Billy Vunipola’s was disallowed for a double movement and Farrell accepted a penalty kick to send England into the break 17-10 ahead.
Sexton closed the gap to four points, but the confrontation was counting bodies. England forwards Maro Itoje and Kyle Sinckler limped off, and Ireland replaced tired props Healy and Tadhg Furlong in the third quarter.
England pounced again from a scrum on halfway, as Slade gave May an overlap and indicated to the wing to kick ahead. Slade then won the race to the bouncing ball and England was clear at 22-13 with 14 minutes to go.
When Ireland center Garry Ringrose was cut down by England replacement Courtney Lawes and turned over by Curry, England skipper Owen Farrell nailed the penalty kick from 47 meters, the limit of his range.
Ringrose was replaced, and Irish desperation saw them try to run out of their 22, only for Sexton to pass straight to Slade for his second try and England’s incredible fourth. Not since the great 2003 team had they scored as many in Dublin.