Eddie Jones kept his counsel when asked about Johnny Sexton in the buildup to this match. He was offered the chance to repeat the sort of barb that got him in hot water four years ago but he declined to target Ireland’s captain and fly-half. Evidently he left that to his players and it worked a treat because it is hard to recall such a lacklustre performance from Ireland’s most influential player.
Manu Tuilagi, involved so often in the opening exchanges, ran straight down Sexton’s channel time and again and when he had the ball, Courtney Lawes and Tom Curry were never far away.
To pin this deflating defeat all on Sexton would be unfair. His halfback partner Conor Murray was equally as poor, Jacob Stockdale horribly out of sorts but there was a moment in the first half, just before the half-hour mark, when you had to feel for Ireland’s leader. He had lost a boot, and as he went to fling his pass, he slipped over, much to the delight of the Twickenham crowd. Sexton is strong of character but you’d forgive him for wanting the ground to swallow him whole at that stage.
By then Ireland’s captain had already gift-wrapped England their first try - juggling Ben Youngs’s grubber kick under close attention from Owen Farrell before spilling it into George Ford’s path. He proceeded to waste a penalty advantage, twice, with loose kicks, then shanked the resulting kick at goal and he was at fault soon after with a dreadful pass to Bundee Aki. Indeed, Sexton’s passing, normally so accurate, was off throughout - one of those days when the ball just won’t come out of the hands as hoped.
Much had been made of the similarities between Sexton and Owen Farrell beforehand, of the Irishman’s role in the family soap opera. Certainly they both gave the referee Jaco Peyper a constant grilling but the contrast in performances - Farrell excelling despite a bizarre moment when he refused to let go of CJ Stander’s leg - can hardly have been more pronounced.
Sexton’s torpor typified Ireland’s off-colour performance and more than anything, this was a dose of realism, an end to their grand slam hopes and those of claiming the triple crown.
So uninventive were they that this can be chalked up as a good day for Joe Schmidt, a reminder that while he has been hung out to dry for how tightly he kept the leash on his players, the New Zealander’s methods could mightily effective.
Ireland were expected to dominate the aerial battle, to make a mockery of Jones’s decision to pick Jonathan Joseph on the wing. They did nothing of the sort and Joseph was not targeted with a high ball of note until the 54th minute. Andy Farrell had brought about improvements in Ireland’s opening two matches but on this evidence he has plenty of work still to do. “The scoreline flattered us a little bit,” he said. “We started firing a few shots when the game was over and that’s not what we want to do.”
If the 17-point deficit at half-time flattered Ireland then in the second half Sexton at least attempted to take matters into his own hands. His passing radar was off, so he tried to take on England’s relentless defenders. He made little headway but he is not one to give up easily. Increasingly there was an air of resignation over his protestations to Peyper but still they came. He might have concentrated on his kicking however, because his hooked conversion attempt of Robbie Henshaw’s try proved costly - 12 points still looked every inch an insurmountable difference after that miss.
Sexton is 34 but nonetheless it would be the most extreme of overreactions to suggest his days in the No 10 shirt are numbered, not least because he is Farrell’s captain.
You could not help but think that it was a glimpse into the future however, when Ross Byrne, his Leinster teammate and 10 years his junior, came on and slotted in a fly-half.
The match ended with Byrne dictating things and Sexton lurking out on the left, hoping for a consolatory late score after a forgettable afternoon. It did not come – on days like this they never do.