ENGLAND’S title hopes were shattered as Charlie Ewels was handed the fastest red card in Six Nations history.
But Eddie Jones’ men could not have given any more in defeat.
Playing almost the entire game with 14 with Ewels dismissed after just 82 seconds for leading with his head as he tackled James Ryan, England’s commitment was utterly compelling.
It was a titanic forward effort, led by the immense Maro Itoje who came off his sickbed to play with the energy of three players.
But that extra man was always going to tell as Ireland ended with a bonus point victory and the chance of lifting the crown still alive.
Marcus Smith’s boot had kept England in contention and, incredibly, even drew them level with a quarter of the match to go.
But substitute James Conan’s try killed England off, Finley Bealham, only on for two minutes, twisted the knife with the fourth.
The Irish party that started will not end until the Cheltenham hangovers wear off next week.
England were left to mope over their consolation beers.
Itoje’s presence, after Friday’s illness scare, was a boost.
But Jones could have imagined he would lose Itoje’s second row partner inside two minutes – and spend the rest of the game with 14.
Nobody inside Twickenham initially noticed what saw Ryan go down but the TMO alerted French referee Mathieu Raynal to the impact as Ewels led head-first.
It took just one viewing on the giant screen for the referee to tell England skipper Courtney Lawes: “It’s really dangerous. It’s the player’s responsibility not to put himself in a reckless position to cause injury. I have no option.”
Shock and disbelief, for Ewels and the Twickenham crowd, Jones ordering Jack Nowell into the scrum.
Sexton slotted the penalty and before England had regathered their thoughts, they were five more points down, exposed down the right flank.
The final pass was from Josh van der Flier, with James Lowe running in unchallenged from 40 yards out.
Too easy and it could have been worse, No 8 Caelan Doris bulldozing through Harry Randall to go over in the corner, only for the try to be scrubbed for a knock-on by Jamison Gibson-Park in the build-up.
England’s cause was hardly helped with Tom Curry limping off after 15 minutes but Alex Dombrandt provided extra muscle, and Smith – at primary school in Singapore when opposite number Jonny Sexton was making his debut in 2009 – cut the arrears after the rejigged scrum won a penalty.
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The set-piece was the one area where England had parity or better and suddenly there was a bounce in their step.
Itoje was a giant as England won the battle for the referee’s sympathies, the penalty count swiftly racking up in their favour, with Smith, on his second opportunity, cutting the deficit to two points.
A mighty effort but seemingly for nothing as Ireland rumbled towards the posts, Gibson-Park took a quick tap-penalty and Hugo Keenan took Nowell with him as he touched down, Sexton added the extras but Smith had the final word of the half after Ireland handled on the floor.
It was still on a knife-edge, the next score huge, England defending with furious intent, that scrum in command.
And when Smith’s high ball and a brilliant chase earned England another penalty and three more points, Twickenham began to dream of a glorious triumph.
Enter Ben Youngs, Andy Farrell swapping two thirds of his front three, in an attempt to stem the tide.
To no effect, Ireland penalised once more at the scrum, Smith levelling it with 20 minutes to go, the roars of unexpected belief from the home fans telling the story.
They couldn’t, could they?
No, although England briefly thought Freddie Steward was away for an interception score after another heroic goalline stand.
The referee, though, had spotted Itoje illegally spoiling, Sexton kicked the easiest of goals, and Ireland were back in front, this time for good.
Any doubt was ended with with minutes left, England again forced back as wing Andrew Conway barrelled to within five and Conor Murray gave fellow replacement Conan the opportunity to crash over.
Bealham, from close range, and Sexton’s boot completed the task.
England were left thinking about what might have been – and now they have to raise themselves for Paris next week.