AS the heartiest of Fields of Athenry renditions boomed around on Saturday, you could easily have thought you were back at the old Lansdowne Road in Dublin or Limerick’s Thomond Park perhaps.
The Irish were in full voice, victory all but sealed even with around 20 minutes still to go, rejoicing the prospect of one of their finest-ever wins and on St Patrick’s Day, of all days, too.
Yet the venue was Twickenham, the citadel of England rugby, the No 2 team in the world and home of the sport’s richest union.
The Red Rose had not lost a Six Nations tie here since 2012 – Ireland’s last win was two years further back still – but now the fortress was sacked.
It’s not been a great tournament for us, but we are going to and have found out a lot about ourselves.England captain, Dylan Hartley.
Emphatically, as well, despite what that final scoreline suggests.
Officially, the Irish only had an allocation of 5,000 tickets in an 82,062 crowd, but as that resonating roar grew on a momentus afternoon for Joe Schmidt’s side, it felt so like they were the hosts.
It took England’s fans fully two minutes to respond to the increasingly loud Fields of Athenry but, when they eventually did, Swing Low, Sweet Chariot has never sounded so meek.
That reaction mirrored what was witnessed on the pitch; the wheels had come off this chariot. It was shambolic at times.
Worryingly, though, the problem for England was that, in all honestly, most people expected it, the holes in their gameplan that appeared previously during successive defeats in Edinburgh and Paris, were too wide to successfully be papered over against an opponent of this calibre.
So much, then, for ‘scummy Ireland’ as Eddie Jones, the beleaguered England coach, had labelled them at a sponsors event last year, comments that emerged in the build-up to Saturday’s game. This was classy Ireland all the way, richly deserving only a third-ever Grand Slam with a stellar display that suggests they – not England – could yet be the biggest challengers to New Zealand’s world crown in Japan next year.
They were 21-5 ahead at the break and then 24-5 in front until England finally found enough cohesion to slip Elliot Daly in for his second try but that was as late as the 65th minute.
The hosts’ third came via Jonny May with the last play of the game as they finally came to life at the death. But, before that, there had been so much one-dimensional, stilted and disorganised fare allied to some mind-boggling ill-discipline, it all left begging the question what has happened to this England team?
Jones won his first 17 games in charge before finally falling, denied a second successive Grand Slam when, ironically, losing against Ireland in Dublin.
But the Australian saw his side immediately recalibrate, so much so his record stood at 24 victories from 25 Tests until this downturn of three successive defeats.
Granted, they are missing the presence of injured Billy Vunipola at No 8 and first-choice scrum-half Ben Youngs but, let’s not kid ourselves, there is enough talent elsewhere to believe this should have been a far greater contest.
Jones’s selections – he made five changes after defeat in France – didn’t pay off but captain Dylan Hartley insisted the trio of defeats has not shaken them.
He said: “We talked about this during the week after two defeats. It’s just a big bump in the journey we’re on. The important thing is how we respond. It’s not been a great tournament for us, but we are going to and have found out a lot about ourselves. We’ve found deficiencies in our game and at the breakdown, we’ve got to learn to adapt earlier in games.
“Individual discipline has killed us (but) I’d rather this happened to this team now than later on. You know what it does to me? It keeps your feet firmly on the ground and keeps a burning hunger and desire to improve as we’ve experienced the highs of the rollercoaster and it’s bloody good fun. At the moment we’re experiencing a low. We know what it takes to get back and we want to get back. When we started this journey we were ranked eighth in the world, and we had a rapid rise, and we earned that. Other teams are getting better and we’ve got to do the same.”
The hooker says he has already learned from just how clinical Ireland were.
“Yeah, do you know what, today I actually noticed how composed and controlled they were when they got penalties and what they did off the back of them,” he said.
“They were very clinical, the way they took their time and it is something I will take away from this game, is how composed they were. It’s a good learning for me.”
While England were ponderous and thoughtless, Ireland saw tyro winger Jacob Stockdale make history becoming the first player to manage seven tries in one Championship after Garry Ringrose crossed for their first score inside just seven minutes.
Even a first half yellow-card for flanker Peter O’Mahoney, allied to fellow British Lion Jonathan Sexton going off with a head injury, could not dent their belief.
The only thing that did stop Ireland? The weather. Sunday’s homecoming event was cancelled due to heavy snowfall. They’ll party on regardless.
England: Watson (Brown 34); May, Joseph (Ford 56), Te’o, Daly; Farrell, Wigglesworth (Care 62); M Vunipola (Marler 53), Hartley (George 58), Sinckler (Cole 53), Itoje, Kruis (Launchbury 71), Robshaw, Haskell, Simmonds (Armand 66).
Ireland: Kearney; Earls (Marmion 74), Ringrose, Aki (Larmour 56), Stockdale; Sexton (Carbery 34-40 Carberry 66), Murray; Healy (McGrath 51), Best (Cronin 65), Furlong (Porter 64), Ryan (Toner 66), Henderson, O’Mahony , Leavy, Stander.
Referee: Angus Gardner (ARU).