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Player Ratings: A cheap red card

OPINION: It’s said you cannot reason with a tiger when your head is in its mouth, but the No.1 ranked Ireland were like nervous pussy cats in Dublin for the guts of an hour chasing their Grand Slam triumph, allowing a defiant England to somewhat restore their dented reputation following last weekend’s record home humiliation versus the French.

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It was 50 years ago when the then-England skipper John Pullin famously said after the 1973 hammering at Lansdowne Road, “We may not be very good, but at least we turned up.” However, you could say more about the England class of 2023 as they redeemed their battered reputation with a performance they can be pleased with.

It wasn’t good enough for a victory, Ireland eventually securing the title with a 29-16 win, but England will head home with plenty of kudos, especially for the way they managed yet another red card in this fixture. It was last March when Charlie Ewels was dispatched, and England clung on to a 15-all draw until the final 10 minutes at Twickenham before losing that encounter 15-32.

Here, they lost Freddie Steward to a red on the blow on the interval, but they went on to only trail Ireland by a single point before Robbie Henshaw’s 63rd-minute try calmed the Irish nerves, Andy Farrell’s side going on to win.

Steve Borthwick’s charges had come into this round five fixture gambling that just a single injury-enforced change to last week’s starting pack and the resurrection of the Owen Farrell, Manu Tuilagi, and Henry Slade 10-12-13 combination for a first start since the 2019 Rugby World Cup quarter-final would transform his team – and it did to a point.

England vowed to come out swinging and they were in front for 25 first-half minutes, cagey Ireland presenting Farrell with two early shots at goal, but it then came unstuck, the hosts jumping in front when a 33rd-minute try exposed poor maul defence and then Steward got himself cheaply red carded for needlessly elbowing Hugo Keenan.

That numerical imbalance eventually told midway through the second period, leaving Ireland finishing as the Grand Slam champions and England reflecting on their fourth two-wins-from-five-games campaign in six seasons. Here are the England player ratings:

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15. Freddie Steward – 0
Consistently the best of an average England bunch through the championship, he hit a career nadir here with his needless red card for elbowing opposite number Keenan in the face with just four points separating the teams seconds before the interval. There was a viral debate as to whether it was a red card foul but the moral of the incident was that he should never have given the referee the incentive to penalise him in the first place. Had blotted his copy earlier with some high ball spills and a fumble in the Irish 22 on penalty advantage on 22 minutes.

14. Anthony Watson – 7
Switch to the right wing, he still made it his business to pop up on the left at times to keep Ireland guessing. This was a tidy display throughout, his first-half highlights including one lovely offload in the Irish 22 and then a tackle that forced a Hansen fumble. Continued to impress in the second period with England down to 14.

13. Henry Slade – 6.5
Irrelevant versus France, he wielded influence here as witnessed when good running forced Keenan to shank a first-half kick to touch. Carried well and helped to keep the defence tight and ensure England weren’t buried like a week ago.

12. Manu Tuilagi – 6.5
Back from suspension but his unblemished six-wins-from-six individual record versus Ireland is no more. He did alright, his physical ability keeping a nervous Ireland honest, but he will be disappointed that he was tackled to touch to end England’s major visit to the Irish 22 in the first half.

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11. Henry Arundell – 4
A first start for the 20-year-old won’t be fondly remembered as the Irish defence had his number. Gave up a no-release penalty when a first gallop was halted and was then checked by the famous Irish choke tackle before a second half where Hansen ended another carry on halfway and was pulled just before the hour mark.

10. Owen Farrell – 7.5
Reinstated to the starting XV after last weekend’s chop, he led his team with pride and can be pleased with his effort. Cured the place-kicking yips that had affected him in Wales to have his team just a single point behind entering the final quarter, he set the tone that the Irish would have nothing easy when tackling an opposition man in the air not long into the contest.

9. Jack van Poortvliet – 7
Drew a line under his inconsistent championship by producing his best effort yet. There were fewer errors to mull over, and he played with his head up in the second period, kicking smartly at times to give his team some breathing space with the pressure mounting. A useful 70 minutes.

1. Ellis Genge – 7.5
After last week’s whinge and whine show as a first-time skipper, getting in the ear of the referee rather than better playing the opposition, he turned up to play in Dublin and will take great pride from his scrummaging and his incisive carrying.

2. Jamie George – 7
Anonymous versus the French, he gave it socks and didn’t tire, touching down for England’s sole try off a 73rd-minute maul. Some lineouts went astray but even then he scrambled well, such as his retrieval when one Irish second-half steal went loose in his own 22.

3. Kyle Sinckler – 7
Scrapped the whole way through to keep his side competing and while he will be as pleased as Genge was with the scrum and his in his carry, it was his breakdown penalty that gave Johnny Sexton his first points which him the record all-time Six Nations scorer.

4. Maro Itoje – 7
Apart from some grit here and there, has generally looked like a shadow of himself these past few months, but he was much more of a nuisance here despite starting with an offside penalty concession and another soft giveaway for closing the gap at a lineout in the Irish 22. Kept England going in the second half with Irish nerves obvious and celebrates good moments with glee. Still not near his best, however.

5. David Ribbans – 6
In for the injured Ollie Chessum, he helped to give England’s pack a better overall presence at the breakdown to slow down the Irish ball. However, he wasn’t as good as Chessum had been in this role.

6. Lewis Ludlam – 6.5
An obvious improvement in last week, including a good first-half lineout take in the Irish 22, something he failed to manage when in the French 22 early on a week ago. His work rate was positive, but it never looked like it would have a result-changing influence.

7. Jack Willis – 8
Way off the pace against the French, he rebounded with his best Test display yet. A ball of energy, he was credited with 20 first-half tackles and an early breakdown turnover but will be annoyed that it was his penalty that gave Ireland the territory for the first-half try. Less of a standout performer in the second period, something not helped by being in the blood bin when Ireland scored their game-breaking try and he was later yellow-carded for tip-tackling Ross Bryne.

8. Alex Dombrandt – 4.5
With Zach Mercer back from France when England will next play he needed a big game following last week’s anonymity, but it didn’t materialise. Deserved kudos for holding Johnny Sexton up over the line off a penalty tap but otherwise struggled to impose himself in the first half. There was no impact carrying and his defence was exposed for the opening Irish try, getting flummoxed by the inside pass when trying to provide protection in the first channel away from a maul. Fared better on the ball in the 25 second half he played before getting subbed off, but his days as the starter could be numbered.

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