England fell to a 19-9 defeat to Ireland as their pursuit of a first RBS 6 Nations title under Stuart Lancaster was knocked off track at the Aviva Stadium.
Jonathan Sexton inspired the reigning champions’ 10th successive victory by producing a masterclass in game management, while his half-back partner Conor Murray also flourished behind an Irish pack that played with furious intent throughout.
The only surprise at half-time was that they led by just six points despite having been superior in every department, with Sexton directing operations with calm authority.
And the manner in which they ratcheted up the intensity in the third quarter was reminiscent of New Zealand, with Sexton’s vision initiating a try for Robbie Henshaw that established a 19-3 lead.
Inside centre Henshaw was named man of the match, but that accolade could easily have gone to Sexton who decorated his display with four penalties and a conversion.
England were overrun for lengthy spells of the second half and apart from a characteristic fightback in the final quarter, there was little to applaud in a chastening afternoon.
But former Leeds Carnegie coach Stuart Lancaster refused to concede defeat in England’s pursuit of the championship.
“Absolutely we can still win the Six Nations,” he said. “There are very few Grand Slam teams. In the majority of years you end up with a team winning the championship that has lost one game along the way.
“We have two games at home and it’s critical we get as much out of those as we can.
“Ireland have two games away and Wales are still in the hunt having won at the weekend. Wales against Ireland will be a big game but we can’t control that.”
Wales, meanwhile, kept alive their own Six Nations title hopes with a hard-earned 20-13 victory against France in Paris on Saturday.
Leigh Halfpenny kicked two penalties as Wales edged a tight first half 6-3, but the game burst into life after an hour.
Earlier in the day Scotland slipped to a third successive Six Nations defeat as they fell to a battling Italian side at Murrayfield. Mark Bennett ran in his first international try for the Scots and Greig Laidlaw’s 14 points with the boot kept them in front until the final minute.
But Vern Cotter’s side were undone by a last-gasp penalty try, which was converted by Tommaso Allan.
The result leaves Scotland bottom of the Six Nations table as the only team without a victory to their name while Italy secured their first championship win since 2013.