England’s spirited bid to derail Ireland’s Grand Slam was effectively wrecked by a red card for fullback Freddie Steward after a collision with opposite number Hugo Keenan at the end of the first half, with many pundits unhappy with the decision.
Steward tried to pull out of a collision with Keenan, bracing for contact, but his elbow smashed into his head, earning a red card after a lengthy discussion between the referee and TMO.
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England had produced a battling first half, showing a massive improvement from last week’s thrashing by France, leaving the expectant Lansdowne Road crowd nervous as they sat on a 10-6 lead.
The red card changed everything and Ireland, eventually, took control to claim a 29-16 victory to complete a clean sweep.
England captain Owen Farrell said he thought it was a harsh decision, but added: “They made the rules for a reason.
“There’s no point dwelling on it, we had to keep in it, keep fighting and some of our defensive sets were tremendous and we were able to attack and get some points on the board.”
Coach Steve Borthwick said: “I thought the players adapted to the situation incredibly well. Eventually the space and fatigue took its toll but it was a step forward.”
Borthwick was reluctant to discus the red card, but plenty of former players were quick to weigh in, with former England scrumhalf Matt Dawson saying the officials showed a lack of understanding of the game in a “farcical decision”.
“I can’t disagree with how the contact is a red but it is the context of how it went to that contact,” Dawson said. “He’s stepping and slowing and turning to get out of the contact area, and has been punished by being sent off. It is a mockery. He was doing his utmost to avoid any kind of contact. It is an utter farce.”
Former England captain Will Carling said: “Steward had a split second to react – after a knock-on – to a man running at him. There was no intent – he was protecting himself – what a joke.”
Former Ireland back rower Jamie Heaslip was sympathetic but said the officials had little choice. “In my opinion it is a rugby incident, it happens but once the referee goes to the protocol, it is not going to be good.”
The result meant that England have lost three games for the last three championships since winning the title in 2020, but Borthwick was keen to find some positives.
“You can see the growth from last week and how they have learned and developed from playing against the best sides. I’m excited about what the team can do with a more extended period of time.
“The next time we come together we get a good amount of time so we can work on building on what we want to build.”