Ireland leaders justify status by ending perfect campaign | Six Nations 2023

TRain fell in Dublin mid-morning. A timely refreshing blanket, perhaps, to regulate the collective temperature on this unique weekend in the Irish capital. It felt like you could sink your teeth into the sheer emotion, anticipation and nervous energy of the occasion; Ireland’s chance to win a Grand Slam on home soil for the first time.

With St Patrick’s Day falling on Friday, a dominant showing from the Irish contingent at Cheltenham Festival and a grand slam simply waiting to be saddled and delivered, the mood in the city was, shall we say, lively. As a distinguished Irish writer put it on Saturday morning, the way it was put together for Andy Farrell’s World No. 1 team was “annoyingly perfect”.

Yet occasionally in the days gone by there had been talk in the town’s pubs about that hackneyed trope of Irish rugby, and indeed Irish sport. Despite their vindicated status at the top of rugby’s global rankings, despite 21 wins from 23 – and a record 13 home streak – might the hosts feel a little uneasy in their designated role as overwhelming favorites 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 victory? Giving a spanking, as it is known. Or so the theory went.

The only problem with such a theory was the facts. Under previous manager Joe Schmidt and now Farrell, Ireland have long become accustomed to being favourites. They looked comfortable, relaxed and focused as the game approached: but that’s not to say everything went according to plan when the match finally got underway.

A Johnny Sexton pass failed to find the target and skidded across the soggy grass. Full-back Hugo Keenan horribly misses a shot into touch, giving England an attacking line-up. Mike Catt, Ireland’s attacking coach, said part of the key to success here is to avoid panic should England reach the ascendancy at any stage. His composure would be duly tested early; there was an unusual sloppiness in the home team’s game, with the visitors winning 6-0.

Ireland fans celebrate Dan Sheehan scoring his third try against England. Photography: Billy Stickland/INPHO/Shutterstock

For the first 20 minutes, Steve Borthwick’s side were completely unrecognizable from the thrashing of France seven days earlier. They hunted in packs, raided and engaged the Irish across the countryside. England had spoken of grief after last week’s record defeat by Twickenham, but nothing would have matched the desperation of the Irish fans if England had converted their initial momentum into victory.

Ironically, it would be an Irish inaccuracy that indirectly led to a defining moment of the match. Mack Hansen’s misdirected tackle just before half-time squirted in front of his teammate Keenan. The Irish defender, ducking to try to catch the ball and keep the attack moving, took a shuddering blow from the elbow and hip from his opponent, Freddie Steward, who managed to get his body into a bizarre position.

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While they weren’t mean in the challenge, once the succession of slow-motion replays began, there would only be one result. The resulting red card looked a little harsh perhaps, but the shame of it was that the occasion was simmering beautifully at that stage. Pre-match Irish fears of an unexpected English attack were welling up – but you sensed that even the most dedicated home supporter would have preferred to have achieved this unique feat against 15 Englishmen.

“Ireland 10, England 0,” the stadium announcer mistakenly – hopefully – informed the crowd when Owen Farrell’s third penalty of the night made the game worth a point just after half-time. “No…sorry. Ireland 10, England 9.” Another Irish mistake. But that wouldn’t matter. With England down to 14, and then 13 men following Jack Willis’s yellow card, Andy Farrell’s fine-tuned machine was never going to let that slip, and they duly and deservedly crushed their opponents in the second half.

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    Almost exactly a year ago, after Ireland lost to France on the final day of the tournament, Farrell Sr was looking forward to the summer tour of New Zealand. “It’s the perfect opportunity the group needs… Going to New Zealand doesn’t have equal pressure, so it’s a perfect opportunity to discover more about ourselves.” They won that series 2-1, recording their first wins on New Zealand soil. They discovered a lot more about themselves here.

    “We’re going from strength to strength,” said man of the match Dan Sheehan, scorer of two tries, afterwards. “We are definitely going to enjoy this night.” The top finishers became deserved Grand Slam champions, and everyone else wearing green would also enjoy the night. Of that you can be sure.

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