England avoided the biggest upset in RBS 6 Nations history by beating Italy 36-15 at Twickenham for a 17th successive Test win.
Italy led 10-5 at half-time - for only the second time against England - but tries from Danny Care and Elliot Daly turned the momentum in the hosts' favour.
Michele Campagnaro scored to make it 17-15 with 19 minutes to go, but two Jack Nowell scores and one from Ben Te'o saw England finish with six tries in a scarcely-deserved bonus-point victory.
TWEET OF THE MATCH
The 31-year-old fly-half, who had not played for five weeks because of a calf injury suffered on club duty, kicked 11 points in what was his first Test appearance since he faced the All Blacks in Dublin in November.
Ireland scrum-half Conor Murray scored the only try of the match, with Sexton converting that 30th minute effort in a tally that also included two penalties and a drop-goal.
The sight of Sexton back in command, a big boost too for the British and Irish Lions ahead of this year's tour of New Zealand, was welcomed by Ireland coach Joe Schmidt.
"Johnny really controlled the game well and he didn't shirk the physical stuff either," Schmidt told RTE.
"It was good to see Conor Murray on song as well," the New Zealander added.
Dylan Hartley’s performances against France and Wales at the Six Nations were not up to his standards.
Should the England skipper be dropped?
We put our writers on the case…
Alam Khan and Matt Jones debate whether it’s time for Hartley to be benched.
What are your thoughts?
Let us know!
Alam Khan says YES
England may revel in the euphoria of a battling win at Wales, their 16th in succession, but Eddie Jones clearly has tough decisions to make if they are to continue their all-conquering charge. Dylan Hartley wasn’t on the field when Elliot Daly ran in for the crucial try, nor when his team defied the hosts.
The word ineﬀectual was bandied around about the hooker’s contribution to England’s cause in Cardiﬀ as he lasted just 46 of the 80 minutes. It followed 54 against France in the Six Nations opener. Match fit or not, he is simply not performing, a passenger that England can ill aﬀord, or even need, to carry.
When he’s focused, he’s ferocious and solid in the set-piece, and there would be no debate. But a six-week ban in December for a stiﬀ-arm challenge on Sean O’Brien, taking his career total to 60, has left him under scrutiny.
Hartley says it was a tackling issue and he is undergoing specific work to avoid a repeat. But whether it’s technical issues or temperamental, the 30-year-old has proved a liability, letting down club Northampton and country.
That’s not worth the risk when there are options available at hooker and captain. Jones has repeatedly backed Hartley, but I’m of the belief that you need a captain to see out a game, to be courageous, cajoling and calm. Martin Johnson set the benchmark, but Hartley is nowhere near that level.
There’s talk of him as a candidate to lead the British and Irish Lions in New Zealand. At this rate, he won’t be in the squad. Owen Farrell has been mentioned as a future skipper and, at 25 and increasingly influential in games, he could be a great option.
Maro Itoje, at 22, another possibility, although probably more of a long-term project. And the time is definitely right to start Jamie George at hooker. Busy, brave and a driving force, the Saracens man has been one of England’s excellent ‘finishers’, but deserves to start and the chance to keep Hartley on the bench.
It can only enhance this fine England team.
Matt Jones says NO
England rallied from a 13-8 half-time deficit against Wales to make it a record-extending 16th consecutive game unbeaten with skipper Dylan Hartley oﬀ the field, but this is no time to dispense with their ferocious hooker.
Saracens livewire Jamie George came oﬀ the bench to good eﬀect and clamour will certainly heighten for him to replace the Northampton Saints lynchpin after two underwhelming performances.
But a poor 54 and 46 minutes against France and Wales respectively does not negate the superb run England have enjoyed under Hartley’s leadership. England have been a diﬀerent beast since Eddie Jones took charge and they would not have ascended to where they are without Hartley’s animalistic attributes.
Tough and tenacious, he is a warrior king who inspires all around him. He certainly has his flaws – 60 games missed for club and country due to one indiscretion or another – yet the fact he still remains such a focal point for both speaks louder than any criticism.
After Chris Robshaw’s mild-mannered and meek leadership, Hartley was just what the slumbering Red Rose needed. Robshaw lost more matches (17) than any captain in history, a period that included a four-year spell without a Six Nations title and a group stage World Cup exit.
An injection of passion was demanded. Hartley duly delivered. In stark contrast, he has become England’s most successful leader, with a win percentage of 97 per cent. With the 2019 World Cup just over two years away, now is not the time to be blooding a new hooker or captain.
Despite a dip in form, June’s Test series in Argentina is the earliest opportunity for Jones to even contemplate a replacement. Forwards coach Steve Borthwick said prior to the seismic Cardiﬀ clash England were trying to increase the number of leaders in their team.
Dropping the sixth most capped player would fly directly in the face of the model of consistency and progress England have become with Hartley as their heartbeat.