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A resurgent England upset Six Nations champions Ireland on Saturday, handing Joe Schmidt a first ever home defeat in the championship with a resounding 32-20 victory that blew the tournament wide open at the first weekend.
England made a sensational start and rarely looked back, stunning the hosts with a fine Jonny May try after just 90 seconds before brushing off a reply from Cian Healy to force a raft of errors, one of them gifting Elliot Daly a second try.
Johnny Sexton cut the deficit back to four points in the second half but the mistakes kept coming for Ireland as their more ruthless opponents went for the jugular 14 minutes from time with Henry Slade touching down a perfectly weighted May kick.
Slade intercepted a Sexton pass for his second try to end Irish dreams of back-to-back grand slams at the first hurdle with a thud that a John Cooney consolation try did little to dampen.
We’ve been waiting a long time for the real England to show up under coach Eddie Jones.
Three years into his reign, this felt like the first good look at the side Jones has been dreaming about, the one he had always imagined he would pick when everybody was fit, the one he’s been whipping and hounding his players in training for, the one that, he believes, can win the World Cup for him later this year.
They are an ugly bunch, nasty, brutish and sharp, a pack of burly bullies with a couple of whippet‑quick sidekicks making mischief around the fringes. They have the strength to beat you one way, the speed to beat you the other, and they will be hell for everyone except their own fans.
Manu Tuilagi, in the starting XV for the first time since 2014 under Stuart Lancaster, felt like the missing piece of the jigsaw Jones had finally found underneath the sofa cushions. He is a talismanic player, a rock for all those fast‑running backs to flow around. Jones has picked 17 men in the centre since he took on the England job but he is only now able to start Tuilagi, the one you suspect he has always wanted to have there.
The little-and-large centre pairing with Henry Slade is one Jones will stick with. “That’s just the start for him,” Jones said afterwards.
Of course, it wasn’t all so slick and smooth. England played some rough stuff in the rest of the first half, when it felt as if there was a danger their indiscipline would undo them. It felt as if England were playing right on the edge, just as New Zealand did when they beat Ireland in Dublin in 2016. Joe Schmidt made that same comparison after the match.
“We got man-handled a little bit,” said Schmidt. “It’s not too dissimilar to the All Blacks here a couple of years ago when we got beaten up and we got beaten up again today.”
At half-time, England were 17-10 up, a good omen. The last five times Ireland had lost, they had been behind at half-time. And the flipside of that particular statistic is that they had been behind at half-time only five times in that run, too, losing every one. Five duly became six. It always felt as though England were holding on to control.
Ireland simply did not have the strength in them to wrest back the match. England just kept pouring it on with more power, more power, more power.
In the end, the match finished up being the one thing no one had predicted: an English rout.
This was it, then, the signature performance England needed, a statement of intent at the start of the World Cup year.
It was their first match of 2019 and it will likely be the most important they play till the last comes around, sometime, someplace, in Japan in the autumn. Because it was proof England have a game that can beat the best team in the northern hemisphere on their home turf, something even New Zealand failed to do the last time they tried.
And if England can do that, then they, and everyone else, will know they can do plenty else, too. “We’re a team that’s still growing,” Jones said. “We’re nowhere near our best.”
It’s far too early to be talking about a Grand Slam yet, but this is England’s ‘good year’ where they play three home games and just two away. France, Italy and Scotland at Twickenham should be winnable, with the mouth-watering clash in Wales likely to be the next true acid test.
On this form, no one will be betting against them.