From the moment this year’s Six Nations fixtures first hit the feverish eyes of the game’s followers, many looked upon round five’s skirmish between England and Ireland at Twickenham as the tie that would likely decide where both the title and, quite possibly, the grand slam were heading.
And why wouldn’t you? The simple beauty of the tournament’s format lies, of course, in the inescapability of each nation playing all others once per term, with all the tangled webs of constantly updating cross-country history that process perpetually produces. Every game is a grudge match in the Six Nations.
Yet, over the past two seasons, these two sides have elevated themselves to such an extent that you’d be forgiven for wanting to skip over everything else just to get to this most mouth-watering prospect. England v Ireland in the current climate has more than just the feel of a tribal squabble over bragging rights, or even whose turn it is to lift the trophy. It’s about the symmetry with last year’s decider in Dublin where the hosts ended England’s unbeaten run under Eddie Jones. It’s about whether they will be able to repeat the feat on the champions’ home patch. It’s about settling who will set off for Japan in 2019 as the clear conquerors of Europe, ready to expand their empire globally. It’s a narrative Don King would have been proud to promote. From the Humblin’-in-Dublin to the Conundrum-in-South-West-London.
And yet, as the clock went red on Saturday night in Paris and an uncharacteristically stubborn French defence repelled every Irish effort to advance towards the agreed industry standard drop-goal range, it was all about to evaporate. Ireland weren’t just conceding ground, they were forfeiting their place in the grander debate. They were resolving the question most assumed wouldn’t be answered until the tournament’s last day on its opening one. And then Johnny Sexton swung his right boot.
The flyhalf’s drop goal was so sweet that you knew it was good while it still had 40 metres to travel. Sexton certainly did, reeling away in celebration in the instant he’d made contact and barely pausing to actually watch the ball cross through the posts with his own eyes. The connection he’d felt as ball, ground and boot simultaneously intersected in that singular moment of purity was all the evidence he needed. All the more remarkable was that it came not long after he’d missed what, by his own standards, was an absolute sitter of a penalty which would have taken Ireland two scores clear and effectively ended the contest. Minutes later, as France advanced with that devilish panache for disrupting the agreed narrative stirring in their souls, you could feel the inevitability of the their eventual score. It was the full stop at the end of a meandering, riveting sentence. Until Sexton decided that it wasn’t.
Of course, we shouldn’t really be surprised. This is the same Johnny Sexton who forced Warren Gatland into changing his game plan mid-tour in New Zealand last summer. It’s the same player whose legend was forged in the fires of the Heineken Cup final in 2011, awhere Sexton famously grabbed a bunch of far more senior players by the scruff of the neck at halftime and led Leinster back from a 17 point deficit with 27 unanswered second half points. If we’re rating all the incredible things Johnny Sexton has done in his career this is probably no more than an eight-out-of-10.
Who knows what Sexton will produce once he gets to Twickenham. What we do know is that, barring some kind of act of God, England and Ireland will meet on the 17th March at Twickenham. We know all that the match stands for and what it will mean symbolically. However, what this weekend has proved is that neither side can take stepping onto that pitch unbeaten for granted. If England see off a rejuvenated Wales this week, they will then face their number 10. Both still have to see off a Scotland side far better than they showed in Cardiff. We don’t know exactly what will be at stake when the two sides meet in just over a month’s time. All we know is that there’s a hell of a lot of fun to be had before we get there.