The list of teams who have won a Six Nations grand slam and followed it up by hoisting the World Cup in the same calendar year can be counted, for now, on a solitary English finger. Even as Ireland’s players, coaches and supporters celebrated a famous achievement on Saturday night, though, they were already raising their eyes to the horizon and asking if something brighter might yet materialise.
Only Clive Woodward’s England have previously stood where Ireland do now: the official grandmasters of Europe and the planet’s No 1 team six months out from a World Cup. Woodward’s squad just about kept going long enough to hit double top in 2003 and the obvious next challenge for Andy Farrell’s Ireland is to do likewise.
There is no reason, in theory, why his squad cannot maintain their current momentum. Their age profile is good, with many of the players likely to be still around in 2027, never mind in France this autumn. As the past few weeks have revealed, there is also increasing depth in the event of injuries. Over 30 different Irish players took to the field at some stage in the Six Nations and, more often than not, their grand slam beers were earned the hard way.
Most striking of all, perhaps, was their defensive solidity. Ireland conceded just six tries in their five games, taking to a miserly 10 their combined tally in the last two Six Nations campaigns. Compare and contrast with England who conceded an unprecedented 18 tries this year alone. As England continue to lament Freddie Steward’s red card in Dublin, it is also worth mentioning that no Irish player received a card of any sort in the entire tournament.
Well organised, disciplined, forceful and savvy, it is no longer a case, either, of Ireland leaning on one or two key individuals. Even on Saturday, when nerves clearly entered the equation, they still kept calm and carried on. Considering Tadhg Beirne, Garry Ringrose, Iain Henderson and Ronan Kelleher, among others, were missing, talk of Ireland always underperforming at World Cups feels increasingly anachronistic.
Much, of course, can change in six months but the gap between the northern and southern hemisphere is shrinking to the point of invisibility. If anyone is going to upset the Irish it will probably be France, hosts of the World Cup when it kicks off on 8 September. France scored an average of 4.2 tries per game, a new personal best, in the most high-scoring Six Nations season on record and they likewise have not yet hit their absolute ceiling.
The only problem is that the Irish and Les Bleus sit on the same side of the World Cup draw, alongside New Zealand, South Africa and Scotland. But at this precise moment are we absolutely sure the All Blacks will beat the French on the opening night or that the Springboks will flatten Ireland just over a fortnight later? In the event of two keynote European victories, Ireland could be required to shoulder their way past New Zealand and then Australia to reach the final, which could conceivably end up being another rendezvous with France.
And why should an all-northern hemisphere final remotely be a surprise? On the latest evidence players such as Caelan Doris, Josh van der Flier, Antoine Dupont, Grégory Alldritt and Jonathan Danty are as good as anybody out there. And if Eben Etzebeth, Lukhanyo Am, Cheslin Kolbe, Beauden Barrett and Sam Whitelock fancy disproving that theory, they also need to factor in the coaching expertise their rivals now possess. It feels less and less coincidental that Farrell and Shaun Edwards, once serial winners with Wigan, are so intrinsically linked with Ireland’s and France’s current success.
There can be no disputing, either, that their respective previous employers, England and Wales, are missing their input. If Scotland can point to a top-half finish and another productive Twickenham ram raid as proof they are heading in the right direction, none of the bottom three nations are there by accident. Italy, for all their progress in other areas, still need to finish more of their chances while not every member of Wales’s ageing side looks set to feature at the World Cup.
And whither England? Extreme makeovers are occasionally possible in a short period, as Steve Borthwick knows from past experience. Back in 2007, the last time the World Cup was held in France, the head coach was among those left to pick up the pieces after a chastening 36-0 defeat by South Africa in the pool stages. England somehow recovered to reach the final and Borthwick’s mind drifted back to that transformation last week. “I was sat in that meeting room the next day when we had to deal with it and make plans about what we were going to do. I think the team learned fast then and it’s learned fast now. We’ve got to keep that going.”
He believes this week’s tournament debrief is a vital staging post. “It is going to be integral to us going forward. What we’ve learned about the players, what works, what doesn’t work, what are the biggest areas of growth in us … we want to make sure we have a team that can compete at the World Cup. We’ll be squeezing every bit we can out of the time and resources we have to ensure we’re the best prepared we possibly can be.”
Having lost three of their five games for the third successive season, though, there is no disguising the reality that England still have significant ground to make up. Nor can this month’s French flop – “a horrible, painful experience,” confirmed Borthwick – simply be airbrushed out of existence. Ireland’s consistent excellence, if anything, has further upped the ante for everybody else.