Ireland clinch Six Nations grand slam after victory over 14-man England

There have been some raucously celebrated green days but few to match the roar when this particular final whistle sounded. Andy Farrell’s modern Ireland were already the world’s No 1 team and now a Six Nations grand slam has been added to their lengthening honours list. In truth, though, the cheers also reflected a sense of genuine relief that shamrock dreams had actually come true.

Even against 14 men, with a debatable red card having been shown to an aghast Freddie Steward shortly before half-time, the hosts were just 10-9 in front with 19 minutes left. England were proving stubborn opponents and the ultimate Irish nightmare was still a faint possibility. Never before had an Ireland side clinched a slam in Dublin and the weight of history was increasingly tangible.

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In the end, though, it all finished fine and dandy. Centre Robbie Henshaw surged over to release the tension and his energetic teammate Dan Sheehan touched down his second try of the evening to kill off any chance of a major upset. Even the sight of Johnny Sexton limping off prematurely in his final Six Nations game could not douse the Saturday night emerald fever across the island of Ireland.

Would they have prevailed had Steward stayed on the field? No one will ever know but Farrell’s squad tend to find a way. While this was far from their finest display of all time – or even this season – it still sets Ireland up nicely ahead of this autumn’s Rugby World Cup. “I’ve just said to Johnny, there’s bigger fish than this to fry,” confirmed Farrell. There is no chance whatsoever of this Irish side resting on its laurels between now and September.

Ireland’s players also now understand what a properly massive fixture entails. Half a million people were estimated to have watched Friday’s St Patrick’s Day parade in Dublin but, in many imaginations, Saturday’sthis contest felt even bigger. All week they had spoken about playing the match not the occasion. Easily said, less easily done when an expectant nation is so awash with anticipation.

With Ireland having won 21 of their previous 23 Tests, confidence was also sky high. Not since the 2011 World Cup, when all and sundry expected New Zealand to beat France in the final, had there been comparable levels of pre-match assurance. If it was hard to make a compelling case for England coming spectacularly good, nothing in top-level sport is ever entirely guaranteed.

A few fluttering early home nerves were certainly discernible on a cool, breezy evening. The early scoreboard pressure came from the visitors via two Owen Farrell penalties to add to the anxiety inside the Aviva Stadium. Ireland are good but they are still human. England were also committing harder to the breakdown, clearly stirred by their ill-fated start against France at Twickenham.

Related: ‘Roll on the World Cup’: Johnny Sexton aims sights even higher for Ireland

It was a relief for the Irish faithful, accordingly, when over-exuberance gave Sexton, from 40 metres out, the chance to nail the penalty he needed to become the highest points scorer in Six Nations history. The last thing England needed was Sexton settling nicely into the groove, the fly-half having already been denied when a quick tap close to the visitors’ line ended with him being held up.

For that reason it was not the world’s biggest surprise when Alex Dombrandt clattered Sexton late and Farrell complained loudly to the referee Jaco Peyper about the Irish captain making a meal of the challenge. Sexton, having stopped clutching his head, took an equally dim view of the accusation and the hackles of both sides began to rise.

Maybe that was all Ireland needed to snap back into beast mode. At their best they are as slick and accurate off first phase as any team around and they underlined the fact after 33 minutes. From England’s perspective, though, it was defensively disappointing as Josh van der Flier, winning his 50th cap, sent his Leinster teammate Sheehan through a huge hole direct from a lineout. Ireland finally were in front and back in charge of their own destiny.

Their task was about to be made significantly easier. If there was no serious malice in Steward’s braced challenge as Keenan went to regather a spilt ball he did catch the full-back with a clenched elbow for which Peyper could ultimately find no mitigating circumstances. It left England, for the second consecutive year in this fixture, down to 14 players before half-time.

An already mountainous task now felt impossible, even if Ireland butchered a clear try-scoring chance just before the interval with a big overlap ignored wide on the right. England had conceded 10 penalties in the first 40 minutes alone, only their determination to atone for their 53-10 home defeat to France keeping them afloat.

Related: Ireland 29-16 England: Six Nations player ratings from the Aviva Stadium

Even so, it was not until Henshaw’s try that the white dam began to crack, with Sheehan and his replacement Rob Herring adding gloss to the final scoreline. A close-quarters rumble finished by Jamie George did likewise for England but their bottom half finish does not lie and they have now ended up outside the top two for the third season in a row.

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At least this was a spirited performance upon which they can hang a hat or two, with Dan Cole’s 100th cap another moment to cherish. Even so a multitude of questions remain unanswered. What next for Marcus Smith? Is there really enough time to regroup in all areas and be serious World Cup contenders? And so on.

This was Ireland’s day though, even if it was a slightly less resounding final salvo than they had hoped for. Sexton still has a few more miles left on the clock and his team now has no reason to fear anyone in France this autumn. Even when it is not purring smoothly the green machine takes some stopping.