England (12) 21
Tries: May, Watson
Penalties: Ford, Farrell 2
Penalties: Sexton 2
England produced a much improved display and survived a second-half rally to defeat Ireland 21-13 at Twickenham and ensure they head into their 2015 Rugby World Cup opener against Fiji on a confident, winning note.
Stuart Lancaster's side were heavily criticised following a notably poor showing against France in Paris on 22 August, but showed significant signs of improvement across the board against an underwhelming Irish squad that have now suffered two consecutive defeats prior to their Pool D clash against Canada.
It took just two minutes for the hosts to take the lead. After dominating from the first whistle and carefully working the ball through the phases, they were rewarded for their patience when Ben Youngs looped an excellent pass out to May. He showcased his excellent speed and had little problem in breaking the attempted tackle of an underpar Tommy Bowe.
Johnny Sexton registered Ireland's first points of the afternoon shortly afterward, relieved to see his long penalty attempt sneak over with the help of the crossbar after May had been whistled for a tackle in the air.
That was as good as it got for Joe Schmidt's side before the break, with England applying constant pressure. Simon Zebo had to be alert to stop a rampant May capitalising on his grubber kick down the left flank, but hat relief was only momentary as Courtney Lawes rose to win the subsequent lineout and the ball made its way to Ford in midfield. He aimed an accurate crossfield kick towards the run of Bath teammate Watson, who showed tremendous composure and athleticism to take a supreme catch ahead of Zebo and touch down to the delight of a jubilant 80,138-strong crowd.
Ireland then suffered a key injury blow as Connor Murray was withdrawn and forced to undergo a concussion assessment after clashing with Joe Marler, and they looked to have gone further behind when England capitalised on good carries from Chris Robshaw and Geoff Parling when the ball was recycled quickly through the hands of Ben Youngs, Ford, Mike Brown and Jonathan Joseph. Tom Youngs eventually provided the final ball for May to score once again, but the try was belatedly ruled out after the hooker's pass was correctly deemed to have travelled forward.
The sheer pace of Lancaster's wide options continued to provide a real headache for the visitors and only a late covering tackle from Sexton metres from the line denied Watson his second try of the afternoon. Ireland enjoyed more possession towards the final stages of the first half, but that pressure eventually came to nothing and they went in at the break probably considering themselves fortunate only to be losing 12-3.
Ireland began the second half at a much better pace, however. After Ford and Sexton had exchanged penalties, they registered their first try when a period of heavy pressure led to May clearing the ball into touch from close-range. Devin Toner rose highest to protect lineout ball from Lawes and fellow lock O'Connell scooped up possession with one arm before burrowing over. The successful conversion made it just a two-point game.
Along with Parling, Tom Wood was recalled by Lancaster in order to correct England's problems at the set-piece and in the loose that contributed heavily to their downfall across the channel. He was denied a try after being stripped by Sexton en route to the line, while Joe Launchbury's decision to pass inside despite the acres of space available on the overlap almost proved costly as Ireland, secured a turnover and engineered a three-on-one situation only to be halted when Robbie Henshaw threw forward under pressure from Lawes.
Both teams had emptied their respective benches by this stage, but for England the widespread changes - including a 20-minute cameo from a certain Sam Burgess - appeared to help increase their momentum rather than stop it. Richard Wigglesworth went over despite a poor pass in the build-up from replacement Owen Farrell, but he was also to be denied after more lengthy deliberation from the Television Match Official (TMO).
With the clock ticking down to a nervy final seven minutes, Munster back-rower Peter O'Mahony was penalised for going in at the side of a maul. Farrell steadied himself and kicked the penalty to give his side some extra breathing space at 18-13 and victory was all but confirmed moments later when the Saracens fly-half secured another three points after good work from the tireless Lawes.