England edged Ireland 13-10 in a Test of breathless intensity at Twickenham to open up the Six Nations into a four-team race at the halfway point on Saturday.
Ireland were the last unbeaten side in the championship after France fell to Wales on Friday, and were favored to end a three-match losing run to England with a side with more than twice as many caps, rampant momentum and added incentive to celebrate Brian O’Driscoll’s world record-tying 139th Test cap.
However, England, with unexpected daring, overturned a 10-3 deficit to lead again within eight minutes, and more than a quarter of the match to go.
In a match marked by gritty, desperate defense, the young English withstood a firestorm finish from Ireland to register what coach Stuart Lancaster called the best win in his tenure, considering the context.
“Given the experience of the Ireland team, the form they were in, the quality of the coaching and the players they’ve got and some of the relative inexperience we have, I’m just so proud of the boys,” Lancaster said. “We showed great maturity in closing out the game. It was character, spirit, playing for the shirt. Ireland, fair play to them, threw everything at us, and once we got that lead we just clung on in there.”
Four teams were tied at the top, with Ireland ahead only on points difference from England, Wales and France.
The next decisive matches appeared to be England hosting two-time defending champion Wales in two weeks, and France closing the tournament at home against Ireland.
“Our points differential puts us in a good position, so we’ve got to make sure that we go forward to Italy as opposed to looking back too much at this game, because we’ve got to take some positives from it,” Ireland coach Joe Schmidt said.
England and Ireland scored one converted try each, with the difference on the scoreboard provided by England’s Owen Farrell, who knocked over two of his three penalty attempts. Jonathan Sexton hit the only penalty shot he had.
Ireland’s scrum was dominant, taking advantage of England tighthead David Wilson playing with only a half of rugby in two months. However, for all of the ball Ireland had, they could not turn pressure into points as England’s defense and discipline was top shelf.
Duncan Weir’s last-gasp dropped goal lifted Scotland over Italy 21-20 at Stadio Olimpico on Saturday for their first victory in this year’s Six Nations.
Italy were heading for a fourth straight home victory over Scotland after lock Joshua Furno’s first international try, which replacement flyhalf Luciano Orquera converted with less than 10 minutes remaining.
However, defeat left Italy winless through three rounds, while Scotland earned some redemption in rebounding from a 20-0 home loss to England, regarded as one of their worst displays ever.