Cian Tracey, Rugby Writer, Irish Independent
Ireland set their sights on the World Cup after stunning Grand Slam success. The deafening roar that greeted the full-time whistle will live long in the memory for those lucky enough to have witnessed it.
Irish rugby has enjoyed many special days over the years, but none more so than winning a Grand Slam in front of a packed Aviva Stadium.
Tears flowed on the pitch, as well as off it, as Andy Farrell’s outstanding side did what no other Irish team had managed by completing the clean sweep in Dublin.
Belfast 1948, Cardiff 2009, London 2018, and now Dublin 2023. Johnny Sexton followed in the footsteps of Dr Karl Mullen, Brian O’Driscoll and Rory Best, as he captained Ireland to a Grand Slam.
It was a fitting way for Sexton to bring the curtain down on his illustrious Six Nations career, as in his final appearance in the great tournament, he became the championship’s all-time highest points scorer, overtaking his former team-mate Ronan O’Gara.
In truth, the Netflix documentary makers couldn’t have scripted it any better. St Patrick’s weekend, England coming to town looking to spoil the party, Sexton’s last Six Nations game.
It all combined to make for a unique occasion, and fittingly Ireland rose to the challenge, and delivered on the promise of their previous four wins.
The epic voyage to the promised land began in Cardiff, which feels like a lifetime ago now, but it laid the foundations for what was to come.
Ireland came into the Six Nations with a major target on their back. Last year’s second place finish along with a Triple Crowd fell agonisingly short of their own lofty ambitions, but they channelled that hurt in the right manner by securing a historic first series win in New Zealand that summer.
A November clean sweep followed, as reigning world champions were downed along with the Southern Hemisphere’s other big hitters, Australia and Fiji.
There is a price to pay for success, and in Ireland’s case, it meant that opposition teams have been scrutinising their every move.
To their immense credit, the entire backroom team of coaches and analysts devised a strategy that the players fully bought into, which ensured their unbeaten run was extended.
Wales were no match for Ireland, as Josh van der Flier’s late try secured the bonus point at the Principality Stadium, and with it, a resounding 34-10 victory.
Farrell’s men had laid down a marker, but their biggest test lay ahead the following week. Beating France was one of the last unchecked boxes for Farrell, and given that Ireland may meet Les Bleus at their home World Cup in the autumn, it was imperative that Ireland didn’t lose to them at the Aviva.
Sure enough, they didn’t. An outstanding performance culminated in Garry Ringrose wrapping up the bonus point with a well-taken try that left Ireland with the maximum ten points from their opening two games.
A week off to regroup and go again was followed by a tricky test in Rome, but again, it was one that Ireland passed.
Mack Hansen’s two tries helped his side to another five-pointer, as all roads led to Murrayfield, which had been billed as a potential banana skin.
Just as Ireland felt that, from a mental point of view, they needed to beat France at home ahead of the World Cup, doing a number on Scotland in their own backyard would also be crucial before the two sides meet in the pool stages in France.
The Scots huffed and puffed, but they could not find a way of stopping an Ireland side that was ravaged by injury, and ended up with prop Cian Healy scrummaging at hooker, and back-row Josh der Flier throwing into the lineout. Is there anything the world player of the year can’t do?
The bizarre set of circumstances should have halted Ireland’s momentum, yet as has now become a characteristic of this superb team, they found a way to get the job done. If anything, they left Edinburgh with a tinge of regret that they didn’t get the bonus point.
England had endured a difficult tournament under new head coach Steve Borthwick, but they arrived in Dublin aiming to spoil the St Patrick’s Day party.
However, there was no stopping the Irish juggernaut, who, although were not at their fluid best, handled the difficult six-day turnaround from Murrayfield with aplomb.
Dan Sheehan’s double, along with tries from Robbie Henshaw and Rob Herring saw Ireland rack up their fourth bonus point victory in five games en route to a glorious Grand Slam success.
The Ireland U-20s then made it an unforgettable weekend for the country by winning a second ‘Slam’ in 24 hours.
As Johnny Sexton lifted the trophy aloft, James Ryan and Garry Ringrose hoisting the Triple Crown, the focus soon turned to what’s coming down the line.
It spoke volumes for the mindset of this squad under Farrell’s expert guidance that both the head coach and his captain began talking about the World Cup in the immediate aftermath of the win over England.
In Farrell’s mind, Ireland are still nowhere near where they want to be.
For all that the players constantly speak of being next moment focused, breaking the World Cup glass ceiling is at the forefront of their minds.
As they made their way around the Aviva on their victory lap, the heroes in green soaked up the raucous atmosphere. No one wanted to go home.
The strong bond that exists within the squad and the coaches is intrinsically linked to the connection that the supporters feel with this team.
These really are halcyon days for Irish rugby, and while it should be cherished and appreciated to the max, hopefully this Grand Slam is merely another major milestone on the journey to the ultimate goal.
As Sexton said, roll on the World Cup.
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