ENGLAND came to Dublin, the Championship already in the bag, heading for a record breaking 19th win and successive Grand Slams.
Stunned in Scotland, rampant in Italy, clinical against France and outclassed in Wales, this campaign has been a mixed bag for Joe Schmidt's Ireland. The men in green were desperately searching for the form they showed last November, the form that beat that beat the World Champions.
A bus delay of 15 minutes was blamed for the slow start in Edinburgh, so Irish fans must have been sweating at the possible implications of a delayed kick off this time. Yet Ireland raced out of the blocks in front of the home crowd on St Patrick's weekend, and the scene was set for a cracker. Passing drills were executed amongst the squad after the anthems as players aimed to keep nerves in check.
Big hits came, as expected, from the off, Jonny Sexton felt the full force of the superbly athletic Maro Itoje as he hit the out half late. The back row was lucky to escape the sin bin, as referee Jerome Garces was satisfied with a warning for his tackle timing.
The Grand Slam hopefuls were struggling to find a rhythm as Ireland dominated possession. Ireland brought the intensity of the Welsh start to this English encounter.
Peter O'Mahony was a late call in for Heaslip, the Leinster man apparently injured in the warm up. Many have been championing the cause for O'Mahony's inclusion and they can feel rightly vindicated.
The Cork man was immense, a Man of the Match performance, three steals in the line out, his usual dominance in the ruck area and an attritional warfare like work rate around the park. Tommy O'Donnell travelled as a reserve to Wales but it was Leinster's Dan Leavy that was called onto the bench.
Donnacha Ryan was at the helm in the line out decision making role, and the set piece looked to be returning to success. At 23 minutes Ireland finally came good with their decision to go for the corner.
The line out has shipped blame during the campaign but the pack came good through Iain Henderson off the back of the maul. It was O'Mahony in the air at the tail and Henderson, in for Devin Toner, used every inch of his reach to make England pay. Ireland had a foothold and the English were scrambling.
Ireland varied their attack, using a back inside option off 9 and 10. Kieran Marmion, in for the injured Conor Murray, impressed. He was often looking to link with Zebo and loose forwards to probe holes around the English fringe defenders. Irish defence coach Andy Farrell searching for ways to unlock the aggressive the English defence. Few line breaks were found from many attempts but England were shutting down outside options so this snipes were keeping inside defenders honest, checking their run. Variation in attacking options was refreshing to see.
Jared Payne came in for the injured Rob Kearney, the Ulster man has been sidelined since suffering a bruised kidney last year.
The New Zealand native, not with the greatest start, a knock on under a high ball in the 22m area. He went on to remind fans of his attacking potential, his work rate, despite limited match time, whetted the appetite for his return to the jersey.
Luke McGrath came onto the bench as scrum half cover, the Leinster half back brought the electric form he's showed at province to the international stage.
A wonderful grubber kick to the corner was a pressure shift in the tense closing moments. Andrew Conway made his international debut on the wing for Keith Earls.
One can only assume that Earls' exit was forced as he has been a continual threat with ball in hand. Conway accounted well for himself, solid under the high ball, posing threats and made some dominant tackles. One such tackle, he was over keen, aggressive off the line, he hit Anthony Watson as he had to jump to control a high pass, deemed to have taken the man in the air. In such a close game every decision was critical.
England varied this defence, even using the no ruck, no offside line on some occasions.
Some blackboard sessions sine their trip to Italy must have paid dividends. They used this tactic sporadically, possibly the best way to apply such a ploy. Using tackle only here and there causes surprise for the attack and Ireland were caught without options on occasion.
At times Ireland were still limited to one out runners but at least different options are creeping in.
Ireland saved their best performance for last, denying the English a Grand Slam is a tremendous finish to a difficult campaign. Marmion, Conway and McGrath impressed in a cauldron of pressure. The return of O'Mahony was a joy and one begins to dream of the battles he will have in a red jersey over the coming weeks.