England took a giant stride toward capturing the Six Nations title on Sunday, scrapping out a 12-6 victory over Ireland in filthy conditions to become the only team capable of winning the Grand Slam.
In a tetchy match decided by the boot, the unflappable Owen Farrell kicked two penalties in either half to clinch a second straight victory for England after their 38-18 triumph over Scotland.
“I’m chuffed for Owen Farrell, but also the maturity of the whole team,” England coach Stuart Lancaster said. “The stakes have always been high, but they go even higher with France coming to Twickenham next off the back of a defeat [to Wales] yesterday [Saturday]. That game will be massive.”
Ireland had not lost a competitive home game against England in 10 years, but a stream of handling errors, and first-half injuries to winger Simon Zebo and flyhalf Jonathan Sexton, held the team back.
Behind 6-0 at halftime, substitute Ronan O’Gara leveled the score by the 57th minute with two penalties and Ireland would have sensed victory when England lost James Haskell to the sin-bin.
However, the visitors showed great composure to hold firm and relied on the unforgiving kicking of Farrell — the heir apparent to Jonny Wilkinson — to see the team home.
“If you practice enough, it’s only another kick. I kick thousands of them,” Farrell said. “Conditions out there weren’t great, but we rolled our sleeves up and got stuck in.”
Ireland coach Declan Kidney said Zebo would miss the rest of the tournament after breaking a bone in his foot.
“It’s been an attritional couple of games and we had a few injuries leading into the tournament, but that’s the way it goes,” said Kidney, who was already without key forwards Paul O’Connell and Stephen Ferris.
Aside from their handling errors — nine in the opening 36 minutes — that botched promising attacking positions, Ireland probably were not helped by star center Brian O’Driscoll’s chaotic buildup to the match. He started despite being with his wife, Amy, for the birth of their baby girl on the morning of the game.
As it turned out, O’Driscoll, like most other backs on the pitch, was hardly seen as conditions invariably turned the match into a battle of attrition.
In Farrell, England have arguably the best kicker in the tournament and he calmly booted long-range penalties in the third and 29th minutes as Ireland were kept scoreless in the first half.
England became ruffled after the break, though, making a mess of two early lineouts and then getting pulverized at a scrum to allow O’Gara to reduce the deficit to three points in the 45th minute.
The hosts were given further hope when Haskell was yellow-carded for interfering with the ball illegally at a ruck and O’Gara kicked the resulting penalty to make it 6-6.
However, England coped well with being a man light and forced errors that were punished by two penalties from Farrell in a three-minute spell to see the match out for arguably the biggest away win in Stuart Lancaster’s short reign.
“We are suffering a bit in there — it is a tough one to take,” Ireland captain Jamie Heaslip said.