Magnificent. How else to describe the way Ireland ripped into England from the off in Dublin with a ferocity and consistency that not only won them the last game of the 2017 Six Nations, but denied England a Grand Slam and the Tier 1 wins record in the process.
Joe Schmidt’s men have been hailed for their tactical nous in the past, but this was all heart. Ireland dug deep and then a little deeper.
The tackle counts are rightly off the charts and Rory Best was on the money when he said bodies would be sore come Sunday morning. The celebratory beers will have no doubt helped.
It has so often been England’s pack that has won the plaudits throughout this tournament and through last year. Except this time Ireland went to a higher level than we have seen from them up to that point in the championship, and miles away from the flat second half in Cardiff, to knock England off their stride.
What might have pleased Schmidt the most however is how Ireland adjusted to the loss of senior players.
Conor Murray’s withdrawal paved the way for Kieran Marmion and later on Luke McGrath. Marmion looked right at home in only his second start, while McGrath’s pinpoint kick with full-time approaching into the corner showed maturity beyond his years.
Few have ever deserved a Man of the Match award more than Peter O’Mahony.
A late replacement for Jamie Heaslip after the veteran number right rolled an ankle in the warm-up, what would have been perceived as nightmarishly late reshuffle in fact gave Ireland balance in their back row – O’Mahony dominating the lineout, Sean O’Brien free to bury himself in the breakdown with CJ Stander in his Munster home at number eight carrying freely.
Ireland were rightly victorious and 13-9 is not a true reflection of their control, but the game was still on the line as England set up a lineout deep in Irish territory looking to maul their way forward within the final ten minutes.
Were it not for O’Mahony’s steal at the front – the first lineout missed by England replacement hooker Jamie George in the entire tournament – then the outcome might have been very different.
In the process O’Mahony, much like his Munster team-mate Donnacha Ryan, has pushed his way into British and Irish Lions contention at the last minute.
Former Ireland captain Paul O’Connell billed O’Mahony this week as the best back row jumper in Europe and Saturday’s evidence underlined that.
Ryan meanwhile never seems to know when the contest is over, and he tore into England’s tight five with aplomb – although his gesture for a card to referee Jérôme Garcès with Ireland bearing down on England’s line was a poor show.
Those efforts from the Munster duo should be enough to alter Warren Gatland’s thinking, with Ireland centres Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose doing their causes the world of good as well.
Johnny Sexton made sure his named is inked as the British and Irish Lions starter at fly-half, and a combination in midfield with Owen Farrell holds plenty of promise.
Did England fluff their lines? Partly. Eddie Jones was quick to place the blame on himself for not preparing the side up to standard – as he has done in the past for poor performances, this being the first time in defeat.
Their pack have rarely come off second best under Jones and the replacements – sorry, finishers – have often been able to bail England out of tricky situations, as was the case against France and in Cardiff.
There were certainly nerves but it was Ireland’s pressure that forced those rare dropped balls from Anthony Watson and Mike Brown, and the lack of secure ball around the breakdown for Ben Youngs meant England never kickstarted their short carrying game around the fringes, resulting in less yards and more pressure on the backs to fling risky passes wide, trying to find a mismatch.
England have not missed Chris Robshaw too much in this championship but the lack of his physicality and work-rate at the ruck sorely stood out in Dublin.
Jones in some ways will be pleased that his players have faced that kind of onslaught now two years out from the Rugby World Cup rather than down the line, but England approached that awkward situation of having to lift the trophy without the Grand Slam as best as the situation allows; with wry smiles, and acknowledging the achievement of back-to-back titles after one in 12 years before Jones arrived.
All in all, there is plenty for England to be proud of considering where they were after the Rugby World Cup. They have not been at their best throughout the Six Nations, aside from the demolition of Scotland, yet are the champions.
But quite rightly it is Ireland who will be waking up on Sunday morning, no doubt with a few sore heads, beaming from ear to ear.
They were unquestionably the better side in a Test that Joe Schmidt billed as one for the purists, but in fact was far more engrossing and tense than that suggests.