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Irish Independent
Irish Independent
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ireland’s Grand designs now extend to conquering the World

Dan Sheehan scores Ireland’s third try during the Six Nations match against England at the Aviva Stadium. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile

Thousands of tiny flashlights lit up as Jaco Peyper lifted his whistle to his lips; history was there to be captured by a legion of celebrating Irish fans who wanted to have a warm memory to go to when the world finally turns.

Right now, their team is the best in the world. In the last 10 games, they’ve beaten New Zealand twice away from home, Wales, Scotland and Italy away and South Africa, Australia, Fiji, France and England in Dublin.

They left the Aviva Stadium with the Six Nations trophy under one arm and the Triple Crown in the other, raucously singing their songs as they made the short drive to the RDS, where they were hailed at a gala banquet befitting of Grand Slam winners.

They wanted to dwell in the moment and they’re right to do so.

Talk inevitably drifts towards the autumn and a World Cup that bristles with possibilities, but there’s no guarantee that all of them will make it and a country that’s only won four Slams in almost 150 years of trying is entitled to drink in the moment.

The rugby nation is so scarred by past experience that there’s a note of caution underpinning every confident utterance.

Up in the ITV studio, flanked by Clive Woodward and Jonny Wilkinson, Brian O’Driscoll wondered if he could “dare” to believe that this team could claim rugby’s biggest prize. 

He went to the World Cup on the back of good Championships and bad and always came away bruised by the experience, but all of the evidence points to Andy Farrell’s team being a different animal. 

The draw is another reason to add an element of doubt to proceedings; a pool involving Scotland and South Africa and the prospect of the All Blacks or France waiting in a quarter-final is enough to temper any undue expectation.

Try and flip it though and put yourselves in their shoes. No one will want to play this Ireland team in France.

Saturday was arguably their worst performance of the last 10 as an improved England team got stuck into them and caused them bother, while their own nerves on this day of days disrupted their flow.

There are loads of holes to pick in the display and yet they came away with a four-try-to-one victory that was earned by teak-tough defence, good discipline and attack they all trust even when things aren’t going their way.

A weaker team could have folded when England got on top in the third quarter and got back to within a point of Ireland. Instead, they grappled with the momentum and forced it their way.

Jack Conan came on and was a pillar of strength, getting a hand in to disrupt an English maul at a pivotal moment.

Ryan Baird’s energy levels and bravery at the breakdown earned them the territory they needed.

A little row on the touchline seemed to calm them right down and when they got the ball to Johnny Sexton, he timed his kick to precision before being nailed late by Ben Curry. Anthony Watson knew he was in trouble before Mack Hansen, Jimmy O’Brien and Robbie Henshaw drove him over his own line.

Within seconds, the Athlone native was taking Bundee Aki’s pass to score a try that settled the whole stadium down. Sexton nailed the conversion to give them a two-score lead and that was probably that.
Still, they kicked for home and kept playing all the way to the finish, when the result was long beyond doubt. 

England, like Wales, France, Italy and Scotland, had been broken by an Irish team who can play an all-court game. 

In the absence of continuity of selection, they have incredible squad cohesion, which means Farrell could make enforced changes without performances dropping too many levels.

Across this tournament, Farrell has used nine front-rows, five locks, four back-rows, six half-backs, four centres and four outside backs. 

Of the 32 players used, seven started all five games and four – James Ryan, Josh van der Flier, James Lowe and Mack Hansen – played every minute.

Farrell can take 33 to France this year and he’ll have a good idea who will be on that plane already.

But with all four provinces having something to play for in the remaining weeks of the season, there’s plenty of incentives for players to play well between now and the end of May to try and force their way in when they reconvene for their pre-season in July.

Already, there’s a strong argument to be made that this is Ireland’s greatest team and Farrell the best coach in the country’s history. 

The New Zealand series win sets them apart but they know what will truly separate them from the crowd is a World Cup success.

And that’s not winning a quarter-final, something Wales, Scotland and Argentina have all achieved before Ireland. No, this team is good enough to go to France and win the lot.

Saturday showed that they must do more than turn up to do it and much can go wrong along the way and on the day.
That’s why it’s important that they savour what they have achieved before turning their thoughts to France.

When they do, they’ll know that they’re good enough if they get it right.

Match analysis: how the units rated


Ireland overcame their own nerves and an obdurate English effort to claim the Grand Slam thanks to a brace from the brilliant Dan Sheehan, a try each for Robbie Henshaw and Rob Herring and unerring accuracy from new Six Nations record points scorer Johnny Sexton. Freddie Steward’s controversial red card helped, but Andy Farrell’s men played all the rugby and deserved their win.

IRELAND – H Keenan (J O’Brien 40 HIA); M Hansen, R Henshaw, B Aki, J Lowe; J Sexton (R Byrne 74), J Gibson-Park (J Gibson-Park 73); A Porter (C Healy 76), D Sheehan (R Herring 70), T Furlong (T O’Toole 59); R Baird (K Treadwell 75), J Ryan; P O’Mahony (J Conan 56), J van der Flier, C Doris (P O’Mahony 79).

ENGLAND – F Steward; A Watson, H Slade, M Tuilagi, H Arundell (J Marchant 59); O Farrell, J van Poortvliet (A Mitchell 70); E Genge (M Vunipola 64), J George, K Sinckler (D Cole 68); M Itoje, D Ribbans (N Isiekwe 71); L Ludlam, J Willis (B Curry 53-65 blood), A Dombrandt (B Curry 65).

Ref – J Peyper (South Africa).


Possibly harsh to rate a four-try win so low, but Ireland admitted themselves that their accuracy levels were way down as the jitters got to them and England’s aggressive defence knocked them off their stride.

There were missed chances galore and they were a couple of passes away from pulling away, but when they needed to find something their attack delivered a couple of beautiful tries, with Dan Sheehan’s double the pick of the lot.

The impact of Jack Conan was huge and his hands for the third score were sensational, while Josh van der Flier’s calm execution off the back of the maul for the first was impressive. They’ve been slicker, but they can still count on their attack to deliver when they need it.


There were moments in the first half when England threatened to produce something akin to their 2019 ambush, with Manu Tuilagi punching holes and the visitors creating clean, quick ruck ball.

And yet, Ireland never really looked stressed as they did what they did to the superior Scottish and Italian defences by managing them all the way to the touchline and bundling the ball-carrier out or winning turnovers at the ruck.

England did manage a rampant maul try that won’t please Paul O’Connell, but the work Andy Farrell and Simon Easterby have done with the rear-guard has been quite something as a record of six tries in five games attests.


The game was still in the balance as Andy Farrell rolled on the subs and of all of them, Jack Conan led the charge with a really impactful role. His pass for Sheehan’s second try was sublime, but he wasn’t alone. Rob Herring came up with a score and Tom O’Toole playing well when on for a struggling Tadhg Furlong. Jimmy O’Brien had a calm half at full-back.


Ireland’s lineout was a key contributor to the win and they were pretty immaculate on their own ball, with Ryan Baird an excellent option. Defensively, they’ll be unhappy to concede a maul try but they pressured England’s ball all day.

The scrum, however, was more of an issue and they have plenty to review in the coming weeks and months with South Africa in mind.


Dan Sheehan: We knew he was good and after a week battling a shoulder injury he reminded us all how good with a double-salvo. Not many other hookers could score his first.

Ryan Baird: His energy is infectious and so is his ability to win big moments for his team. A couple of handling errors to tidy up, but he’s going to France as a contender.

Jack Conan: Written off a little after Rome, he’s come off the bench to great effect to play a pivotal role in this Grand Slam.


Tadhg Furlong: Nobody’s writing him off, but this was about as off a day as he’s ever had in green. Could do with an uninterrupted run.

Steve Borthwick: The England coach is an uninspiring figure who repeatedly undermined his captain at the post-match press conference. His team played better, but their reductive rugby is hard to watch.


24 – But for James Ryan’s forward offload, Cian Healy’s mistake at a tap penalty or Ryan Baird knocking on in Edinburgh, Ireland would be celebrating the perfect Grand Slam. Still, 24 out of a possible 25 points is an incredible return

18 – The number of Irish handling errors, perhaps the best indicator of the level of nerves on Saturday

44 – Ireland conceded the least penalties of any team in the tournament, with no yellow or red cards.

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