Tommy Bowe struck for a last-gasp converted try at Twickenham as Ireland snatched a stunning victory from the jaws of defeat, putting an end to England’s winning run in this year’s RBS 6 Nations.
RBS 6 NATIONS CHAMPIONSHIP: Saturday, February 27
ENGLAND 16 IRELAND 20, Twickenham
Scorers: England: Try: Dan Cole; Con: Jonny Wilkinson; Pens: Jonny Wilkinson 2; Drop: Jonny Wilkinson
Ireland: Tries: Tommy Bowe 2, Keith Earls; Con: Ronan O’Gara; Pen: Jonathan Sexton
Racing onto a pass from Tomas O’Leary, winger Tommy Bowe grabbed the headlines at Twickenham as he ran in the decisive try, five minutes from time, as Ireland battled to their sixth win in seven years against England.
Jonny Wilkinson appeared to have won it for England when, with the sides level at 13-13, he landed a 71st minute drop goal.
But Bowe added to his first half try by crossing moments later, with the reigning RBS 6 Nations champions, hampered by the loss of skipper Brian O’Driscoll, then surviving a ferocious late assault from a valiant English side.
Long-serving Irish prop John Hayes joined the ranks of rugby’s centurions as he became the first Irish player to win 100 caps for his country, beating O’Driscoll to the milestone by one match.
O’Driscoll started despite missing Friday’s Captain’s Run session through illness, while the fit-again Geordan Murphy made his first Test appearance for almost a year at full-back.
Jonathan Sexton was also handed his first Championship start after being preferred to Ireland’s record points scorer Ronan O’Gara at out-half, as one of four adjustments to the side beaten 33-10 by France.
England were unchanged following their 17-12 victory over Italy, with winger Mark Cueto shaking off a stomach bug to take his place in the starting line-up.
Reputations were at stake with England needing an improved performance to stop pressure growing on team manager Martin Johnson. And an England win would have left Ireland’s title defence in ruins.
Wilkinson, who shipped some unfair criticism for his performance against Italy, made a hash of the kick-off, showing some early signs of nerves.
England reacted sharply, however, with strong runs from Cueto, Ugo Monye and Wilkinson sweeping them forward.
The bright start lasted only until the fourth minute when a turnover enabled RBS 6 Nations man-of-the-match Jamie Heaslip to break free before releasing Sexton who spotted Bowe on his outside.
A perfectly-weighted kick from Sexton set up a foot race for the line between Bowe and Lewis Moody that was won easily by the Monaghan man.
Sexton missed the conversion but England’s problems increased when an injury forced heavyweight second row Simon Shaw to the touchline and he was replaced by Louis Deacon.
Wilkinson directed a routine penalty at the left upright before a promising attack was brought to an end when the Toulon out-half chipped into the arms of Murphy.
After adjusting his sights, Wilkinson landed three points to see England trail Ireland 5-3 by the end of a first quarter they had largely controlled.
Rain began to fall heavily, and the conditions became treacherous almost immediately. Sexton, who had made a composed start, missed a penalty, but was on target with another attempt in the 29th minute.
Ireland’s efforts to build momentum were undermined by some kicking errors, but there was clinical edge to the visitors’ play when they were created some space.
Winger Keith Earls made a scintillating break as he dashed through three tackles, with prop Tim Payne guilty of the biggest miss, but busy scrum half Danny Care came to England’s rescue on the chip ahead, dotting down ahead of Heaslip.
Wilkinson kicked his second penalty to cut Ireland’s lead back to just two points – 8-6 – but the champions’ defence was largely untroubled.
The second half opened with Sexton and Wilkinson missing penalties and the match continued to be blighted by errors, with one passage of play seeing three successive knock-ons.
Monye, who was targeted by Ireland’s kickers, shoved a dangerous chip ahead into touch with Bowe breathing down his neck and Delon Armitage then limped off injured with Ben Foden being introduced.
Tempers flared in the 54th minute with scrum halves Care and O’Leary providing the flashpoint as they squabbled over possession.
Initially O’Leary was at fault as he prevented Care from getting his hands on the ball but referee Mark Lawrence reversed the penalty for Care dumping the Corkman to the ground, with Stephen Ferris, who was very effective in the loose, also tangling with James Haskell.
The decision against Care was a harsh one that left England pinned back in their half from Sexton’s ensuing kick – an inch perfect one – and they watched in horror as Ireland expertly worked the blindside.
Sexton’s flat, fast pass did the damage with Earls gleefully diving over in the left corner for his maiden RBS 6 Nations try. Sexton missed the difficult conversion.
Nonetheless, Leicester prop Dan Cole set up a nail-biting final quarter when he drove over under the posts in the 61st minute with help from his pack and the despite the best defensive efforts of Donncha O’Callaghan and Rory Best. Wilkinson’s successful conversion squared things up on the scoreboard.
Play was held up for several minutes after O’Driscoll was accidentally kneed in the head by Ireland’s pack leader Paul O’Connell, as the Irish scrambled back in defence.
It was a heavy blow and in worrying scenes the Ireland skipper was attended by medics before being stretchered from the pitch.
The back-line was rejigged with Earls switching to outside centre and Andrew Trimble drafted in off the bench to take the wing spot.
With the match tied at 13-13, Wilkinson missed his third shot at goal but nailed a beautifully-struck 71st minute drop goal to break the deadlock.
But there was greater drama, four minutes later, when Ireland surged back into a match-winning lead.
Ronan O’Gara secured field position with a terrific touch finder, the Irish forwards put pressure on in the lineout and the concession of a subsequent lineout close to the 22-metre line led to England leaking a third try.
O’Connell tapped Best’s throw down and O’Leary, pacing forward, sent a flat pass to the onrushing Bowe who swept through tackles from Wilkinson and Deacon before evading the grasp of Haskell to go over behind the posts.
O’Gara comfortably converted and with the likes of Heaslip and replacements Tony Buckley and Shane Jennings putting their bodies on the line, Ireland survived two late forward drives from England to take the verdict and crown Hayes’ 100th cap with a morale-boosting win.
TIME LINE: 4 minutes – Ireland try: Tommy Bowe – 0-5; conversion: missed by Jonathan Sexton – 0-5; 12 mins – England penalty: missed by Jonny Wilkinson – 0-5; 16 mins – England penalty: Jonny Wilkinson – 3-5; 25 mins – Ireland penalty: missed by Jonathan Sexton – 3-5; 29 mins – Ireland penalty: Jonathan Sexton – 3-8; 37 mins – England penalty: Jonny Wilkinson – 6-8; Half-time – England 6 Ireland 8; 42 mins – Ireland penalty: missed by Jonathan Sexton – 6-8; 44 mins – England penalty: missed by Jonny Wilkinson – 6-8; 56 mins – Ireland try: Keith Earls – 6-13; conversion: missed by Jonathan Sexton – 6-13; 61 mins – England try: Dan Cole – 11-13; conversion: Jonny Wilkinson – 13-13; 67 mins – England penalty: missed by Jonny Wilkinson – 13-13; 71 mins – England drop goal: Jonny Wilkinson – 16-13; 75 mins – Ireland try: Tommy Bowe – 16-18; conversion: Ronan O’Gara – 16-20; Full-time – England 16 Ireland 20
ENGLAND: Delon Armitage; Mark Cueto, Mathew Tait, Riki Flutey, Ugo Monye; Jonny Wilkinson, Danny Care; Tim Payne, Dylan Hartley, Dan Cole, Simon Shaw, Steve Borthwick (capt), James Haskell, Lewis Moody, Nick Easter.
Replacements used: Louis Deacon for Shaw (6 mins), Ben Foden for Armitage (49), Joe Worsley for Moody (58), Lee Mears for Hartley (64), Paul Hodgson for Care, David Wilson for Cole (both 73). Not used: Toby Flood.
IRELAND: Geordan Murphy; Tommy Bowe, Brian O’Driscoll (capt), Gordon D’Arcy, Keith Earls; Jonathan Sexton, Tomas O’Leary; Cian Healy, Rory Best, John Hayes, Donncha O’Callaghan, Paul O’Connell, Stephen Ferris, David Wallace, Jamie Heaslip.
Replacements used: Tony Buckley for Hayes (63 mins), Andrew Trimble for O’Driscoll (65), Ronan O’Gara for Sexton, Leo Cullen for O’Callaghan (both 69), Shane Jennings for Wallace (70). Not used: Sean Cronin, Eoin Reddan.
Referee: Mark Lawrence (South Africa)