The rain rolled across Dublin in mid-morning. A timely cooling blanket, perhaps, to regulate the collective temperature on this unique weekend in the Irish capital. It felt as if you could sink your teeth into the sheer excitement, anticipation and nervous energy of the occasion; Ireland’s opportunity to clinch a grand slam in this city for the first time.
With St Patrick’s Day falling on Friday, a dominant display by the Irish contingent at the Cheltenham Festival and a clean sweep simply waiting to be sealed and delivered, the mood had been, shall we say, buoyant. As one distinguished Irish writer put it on Saturday morning, the manner in which it was set up for Andy Farrell’s world No 1 team was “unnervingly perfect”.
Yet occasionally in preceding days there had been talk in the bars of that hackneyed trope of Irish rugby, and indeed of Irish sport. Despite their justified status at the top of the rugby’s global rankings, despite 21 victories out of 23 – and a record 13 in a row at home – might the hosts grow to feel a touch uncomfortable in their designated role of overwhelming favourites against England?
Would they be happier with their backs against the wall, hoping to land a punch or two, perhaps stealing away with an unlikely win? Giving it a lash, as it’s known. Or so the theory went.
The only problem with such a theory? The facts. Under their previous coach Joe Schmidt and now Farrell, Ireland have long grown accustomed to being front-runners. They looked comfortable, relaxed and focused as the game grew closer: but that is not to say everything went to plan when it finally began.
A Johnny Sexton pass failed to find its target and skidded across the turf. The full-back Hugo Keenan miscued a kick for touch horribly, gifting England an attacking lineout. Mike Catt, Ireland’s attack coach, had said part of the key to success here was to avoid panic should England achieve ascendancy at any stage. Their composure would duly be tested early; there was uncharacteristic sloppiness in the home side’s play as the visitors edged 6-0 ahead.
In the first 20 minutes, Steve Borthwick’s side were utterly unrecognisable from the rabble thrashed by France seven days previously. They hunted in packs, crunched into tackles and got in Irish faces all over the pitch. England had spoken of grief after last week’s record Twickenham defeat, but nothing would have matched the Irish supporters’ despair had England ultimately converted their early momentum into victory.
Ironically, it would be a piece of Irish inaccuracy that indirectly led to a defining a moment of the match. Mack Hansen’s mis-directed offload, soon before half-time, squirted out in front of his teammate Keenan. The Irish full-back, stooping to attempt to gather the ball and keep the attack moving, was met with a shuddering blow from the elbow and hip of his opposite number, Freddie Steward, who had succeeded in putting his body into a bizarre position.
Despite their being no malice in the challenge, once the succession of slow-motion replays began, there was only going to be one outcome. The resulting red card seemed a touch harsh, perhaps, but the shame of it was the occasion had been boiling up beautifully at that stage. Pre-match Irish fears of an unexpected English ram-raid were coming into view – but you sensed even the most committed home fan would rather have achieved this unique feat against 15 Englishmen.
“Ireland 10, England 0,” the stadium announcer erroneously – hopefully – informed the crowd when Owen Farrell’s third penalty of the evening made it a one-point game just after half-time. “No … sorry. Ireland 10, England 9.” Another Irish error. But it would not matter. With England down to 14, and then 13 men after Jack Willis’s yellow card, Andy Farrell’s finely-tuned machine was never going to let this slip, and they duly and deservedly crushed their opponents in the final quarter.
Almost exactly a year ago, after Ireland missed out to France on the final day of the tournament, Farrell Sr looked forward to the summer tour of New Zealand. “It’s the perfect opportunity that the group need … Going to New Zealand, there’s no pressure like it, so it’s a perfect opportunity to find out more about ourselves.” They won that series 2-1, recording their first victories on New Zealand soil. They found out plenty more about themselves here.
“We’re going from strength to strength,” said the man of the match Dan Sheehan, scorer of two tries, afterwards. “We’ll definitely enjoy tonight.” The front-runners had become deserved grand slam champions, and everyone else wearing green would enjoy the night, too. Of that you can be sure.