youRAIN fell on Dublin in the middle of the morning. A timely cooling blanket, perhaps, to regulate the collective temperature on this unique weekend in the Irish capital. She felt as if she could sink her teeth into the sheer excitement, 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 dominating display from the Irish contingent at the Cheltenham Festival and a grand slam waiting to be sealed and delivered, the mood in the city had been, shall we say, buoyant. As a distinguished Irish writer said on Saturday morning, the way he prepared for Andy Farrell’s World No. 1 team was “hauntingly perfect.”
Yet from time to time in the preceding days there had been talk in the city’s bars of that well-worn trope of Irish rugby, and indeed Irish sport. Despite their justified status at the top of rugby’s world rankings, despite 21 wins out of 23, and a home record 13 in a row, could the hosts feel a little uneasy in their designated role of overwhelming favorites against England? ?
Would they be happier with their backs against the wall, hoping to land a punch or two, perhaps sneaking away with an unlikely victory? Giving it a whiplash, as it is known. Or so the theory said.
The only problem with such a theory were the facts. Under former manager Joe Schmidt and now Farrell, Ireland have long been used to leading. They seemed comfortable, relaxed and focused as the game drew closer: but that’s not to say that everything went according to plan when the match finally started.
A pass from Johnny Sexton missed and slid across the sodden turf. Full-back Hugo Keenan horribly missed a touch kick, gifting England an attacking lineout. Mike Catt, Ireland’s attacking coach, had said that part of the key to success here was avoiding panic if England managed to get promoted at any stage. His composure would be duly tested soon; there was an unusual sloppiness in the home team’s play as the visitors took a 6-0 lead.
Within the first 20 minutes, Steve Borthwick’s side were totally unrecognizable from the rabble thrashed by France seven days earlier. They hunted in packs, made tackles and made Irish faces all over the field. England had spoken of grief after last week’s record defeat at Twickenham, but nothing would have matched the despair of Irish supporters if England had finally turned their initial momentum into victory.
Ironically, it would be an Irish inaccuracy that indirectly led to defining a moment in the match. Mack Hansen’s misdirected volley, shortly before halftime, went off in front of his teammate Keenan. Ducking down to try to pick up the ball and keep the attack moving, the Irish full-back took a jarring blow to the elbow and hip from his counterpart, Freddie Steward, who had managed to put his body into a strange position.
Even though they had no malice in the challenge, once the slow-motion succession of replays began, there would only be one result. The resulting red card seemed a bit harsh, perhaps, but the shame was that the occasion was boiling beautifully at that stage. Irish pre-match fears of an unexpected foray by the English were building, but you sensed that even the most committed home fan would rather have achieved this unique feat against 15 Englishmen.
“Ireland 10, England 0,” the stadium announcer hopefully misinformed the crowd as Owen Farrell’s third penalty of the night turned the game into a point just after half time. “No sorry. Ireland 10, England 9.” Another Irish mistake. But it wouldn’t matter. With England down to 14, and then 13 men after Jack Willis’s yellow card, Andy Farrell’s well-tuned machine was never going to let up. escape this, and they crushed their opponents in the second half.
Almost exactly a year ago, after Ireland sat out 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 that the group needs… Going to New Zealand, there’s no pressure like this, so it’s a perfect opportunity to find out more about ourselves.” They won that series 2-1, recording their first wins on New Zealand soil. They found out a lot more about themselves here.
“We’re going from strength to strength,” said two-try scorer Dan Sheehan, man of the match, afterwards. “We will definitely enjoy tonight.” The favorites had become well-deserved Grand Slam champions, and everyone else dressed in green would also enjoy the night. Of that you can be sure.