Ireland recaptured some of their best form to end the Championship on a memorable high with a 24-8 win over champions elect England at the Aviva Stadium.
England’s Grand Slam dream turned into a nightmare in the Dublin rain as Ireland secured their first Six Nations win at their new home.
Captain Brian O’Driscoll once again led by example and marked the day with his 25th Six Nations try, which saw him eclipse Ian Smith’s Championship record from 1933.
Incredibly, it was 11 years ago to the day that O’Driscoll scored his famous hat-trick of tries against France.
Tommy Bowe also touched down and RBS man-of-the-match Jonathan Sexton won his out-half duel with Toby Flood hands down, kicking 14 points and setting up Bowe’s score.
Speaking afterwards, Sexton said: “We desperately wanted to finish on a high. We’ve set a standard now and we hope to continue that to the World Cup in New Zealand later in the year.
“We said when we were losing that we weren’t that far away from where we wanted to be.
“We knew what we were doing wrong and we tried to ignore the criticism and we stuck together and got the performance we were looking for today.”
It was Ireland’s seventh win in their last eight clashes with England and saw the side craft a performance full of energy, controlled aggression and intelligent, heads-up rugby.
Ireland’s scrum dominated the set piece, while their back row of Sean O’Brien, David Wallace and Jamie Heaslip tore into the breakdown, tackled and carried the ball with an intensity England could not match.
The back-three of Bowe, Keith Earls and the returning Andrew Trimble threatened every time they entered the attacking line, and hardly put a foot wrong in defence.
For England, it was simply a day to forget. They were the standard bearers over the opening four weekends of the Championship, but their play at the Aviva Stadium was riddled with mistakes and dropped balls.
They never looked like troubling Ireland’s 17-3 half-time lead, which was founded on four Sexton penalties and Bowe’s opportunist try.
This young England side will learn from this defeat and their manager Martin Johnson, with the Six Nations trophy taking up residence in London, can still take plenty of positives from their title-winning campaign.
The visitors’ early enterprise was undone by a huge Irish shove at the first scrum, which must have buoyed Mike Ross and his front row colleagues.
Some quick-thinking from Sexton, who quickly tapped a penalty near his 22, also caught England off guard. Full-back Earls chased his own hack downfield and Sexton’s well-weighted kick to the left corner earned Ireland a foothold in English territory.
England’s backs were penalised for coming up too quickly at the lineout and Sexton slotted the penalty to give Ireland an early lead.
Ireland were clearly fired up, much to the home fans’ delight, and England were visibly rattled. The confidence spread throughout the Irish team as they continued to prosper while playing at a high tempo.
Johnson’s men, who were missing injured captain Mike Tindall, made mistake after mistake and conceded five penalties in the first 20 minutes.
A careless offside at the kick-off gifted possession back to Ireland, and even when Eoin Reddan knocked on after a charge from O’Brien, England were pressurised in the scrum and lost possession.
Chris Ashton was penalised for a high tackle on Sexton and the out-half converted the resulting kick before Ireland carved England open beautifully.
In a breathless attack, Bowe burst onto Heaslip’s offload and broke past two defenders but his pass, later in the move, was ruled forward as he looked to put O’Driscoll over in the left corner.
England tried to steady themselves and claw back some territory. Ashton looked for an opening, Alex Corbisiero took it on and Ireland were penalised for hands in the ruck.
But the usually reliable Flood hooked the penalty to the left and wide and Declan Kidney’s charges continued their onslaught, roaring back downfield and England’s defence was in pieces.
Ben Foden mopped up after the lively Donncha O’Callaghan had fly-hacked into the England 22, but the visitors were caught offside as Heaslip charged forward.
Referee Bryce Lawrence awarded the penalty to Ireland and in a real show of intent, Sexton tapped it quickly and passed left for Bowe to step off his left and crash over for his third try in two games against England.
England finally got themselves on the scoreboard with a Flood penalty but Ireland were in complete control and could have scored twice more before the interval.
When Shontayne Hape was stripped of possession, powerful flanker Wallace broke clear. England scrambled well with Flood tackling him into touch but scrum half Ben Youngs threw the ball into the crowd, preventing a quick lineout, and was swiftly dispatched to the sin-bin.
Sexton landed his fourth penalty of the evening before Wallace went close again, only for referee Lawrence to rule that Paul O’Connell had knocked the ball forward in the build-up.
O’Connell, together with O’Callaghan, was a tower of strength for Ireland, bossing the lineouts and carrying energetically in the loose.
Youngs did not return after his 10 minutes off the pitch, with Johnson opting to bring on Danny Care. But England could not knock Ireland off their stride after the break and botched a lineout on their own five-metre line.
Ireland pressed for a second try and with 47 minutes on the clock, it duly arrived.
The chance looked lost when O’Callaghan’s attempted pass dropped to the ground, but O’Driscoll scooped up the ball without breaking stride and darted over in the corner for his record-breaking try.
England made four more changes, with Steve Thompson and Jonny Wilkinson, two survivors from England’s 2003 Grand Slam success at the old Lansdowne Road, among the players introduced.
Almost immediately, Thompson cleverly read Ireland’s intentions at a lineout in their half and intercepted a pass from Reddan to gallop over for the try but Wilkinson could not add the extras.
England enjoyed more possession in the final quarter but they lacked penetration and direction, and Ireland kept them out of their 22 for the most part.
Replacement out-half Ronan O’Gara continued where Sexton left off, pinning England back with a couple of expertly-judged kicks to touch in worsening weather conditions.
The rain made for a greasy ball and a number of attacks were broken up by tigerish defending and handling errors as tiredness crept in for both sides.
Still, Ireland maintained a high level of performance right to the final whistle and England’s best chance in the closing stages was thwarted by a hungry Heaslip who stripped Simon Shaw of possession as he drove towards the Irish line.
Previously, an alert Gordon D’Arcy had come to Ireland’s rescue as he intercepted Ashton’s pass, in front of the Irish posts, as the English winger looked for support.