The cold, hard facts tell their own story. For the second Six Nations running, Ireland finished with the best defensive record.
Ironically, last year’s four tries and 63 points conceded was only good enough to finish runners-up to France, but this time around, six tries and 72 points conceded won Ireland the Grand Slam.
To add further context, Ireland’s combined total of 10 tries conceded in the 2022 and 2023 Six Nations is fewer than Italy (22), Wales (19), England (18), France (14) and Scotland (12) managed in the entirety of this season’s tournament – as pointed out by statistician Russ Petty.
For all that the ingenuity around some of Ireland’s scintillating set-piece tries such as Dan Sheehan’s in last weekend’s win over England or Hugo Keenan’s score against France, their success has been predicated on an outstanding defensive effort that has all the hallmarks of an Andy Farrell-led team.
Simon Easterby deserves huge credit too as Ireland’s defence coach, with the players fully buying into the game-plan that has delivered the country’s fourth Grand Slam.
As well as boasting the best defensive record, Ireland also had the best discipline in the Six Nations. Remarkably, they were not shown a yellow or a red card, while their 44 penalties conceded was the fewest in the championship, behind England who were the next best on 47.
There were, however, plenty of occasions when Ireland were stretched across the course of the five games, but their scramble defence was outstanding, which again points to Farrell’s never-say-die attitude.
The players’ willingness to scramble and fight for one another began as early as the 12th minute of Ireland’s opener in Cardiff.
As the ball breaks loose, Wales’ speedy winger Rio Dyer looks like he has out-sprinted the Irish cover, only for Hugo Keenan to turn on the after-burners and stop a certain try.
A 34-10 win over Wales means it’s easy to forget that the hosts put Ireland under pressure at different stages at the Principality Stadium.
Garry Ringrose comes up with a vital cover tackle on Dan Biggar, below, which allows James Lowe to swoop in and win the jackal turnover.
Ireland had to defend their line in the lead up to half-time, with Andrew Porter, along with help from Finlay Bealham and Dan Sheehan, doing remarkably well to hold up Jac Morgan and keep Wales at bay again.
Moving onto round 2 against France at the Aviva Stadium, in a similar manner to the Ringrose and Lowe example above, James Ryan shows great awareness to track Damian Penaud’s scything run.
The tireless Ireland lock, who was immense throughout the campaign, tackles Penaud before Stuart McCloskey wins a crucial turnover penalty.
Later on, in the 75th minute, Bundee Aki uses all of his nous to quell the threat of Antoine Dupont. As the French magician weaves his magic through the Irish defence, Aki does well to dive on the loose ball ahead of Penaud.
Italy’s improving attack posed Ireland plenty of questions, many of which stemmed from a difficult afternoon in Rome for Ireland’s midfield.
Lorenzo Cannone makes a big line break, but the ever-reliable Keenan is on hand to snuff out the danger with an excellent cover tackle, as Rónan Kelleher manages to slow the Italian attack down.
Armed with their box of tricks, Scotland threw everything at Ireland in Murrayfield in round 4.
They set their stall out early, with Johnny Sexton and Ryan doing well to bundle Stuart Hogg into touch.
Scotland kept banging at the green door and while they did find a way through, Ireland had Keenan to thank again for ensuring that the home side didn’t get over for a second try.
This time Keenan halts the imposing gallop of winger Duhan van der Merwe with a textbook tackle that prevented a certain score, as Lowe was on hand to win another vital jackal turnover to relieve the pressure.
Right on the stroke of half-time, Keenan produces another big tackle on Hogg, who manages to get the offload away. Suddenly the Ireland defence is scrambling, but Lowe and Porter shove George Turnover into touch.
Even when the result felt like it was in the bag, there was no let up from Ireland, as Peter O’Mahony, Robbie Henshaw and Jack Conan highlight below.
With 74 minutes gone, the lungs burning, O’Mahony illustrates the kind of work-rate that was a feature of his strong campaign, as he hammers Blair Kinghorn over the sideline, along with some help from Henshaw and Conan. The latter’s reaction shows what it means to the players.
Onto last Saturday, the fifth and final leg of Ireland’s glorious Grand Slam journey.
As England play off penalty advantage, Freddie Steward, who hadn’t yet been sent off, darts across the pitch, but is met by a brilliant cover tackle from Henshaw, with Keenan also lending a considerable hand.
Ireland had identified Steward as England’s danger man, as he was often met by two tacklers. In the below example, Sexton and O’Mahony double-team the England full-back by driving him back over the gain-line for a big psychological win.
England again look to threaten out wide, but Lowe reads Lewis Ludlam’s offload for Manu Tuilagi, as the Ireland winger, along with Ryan Baird, get a big shot on the England centre. Just as Conan’s reaction in Murrayfield was instructive, so too was Lowe’s in this instance, as he gets the crowd going.
An analysis of Ireland’s relentless work-rate in defence would not be complete without a Josh van der Flier example.
The World Player of the Year maintained his excellent form with another strong Six Nations, which like Ryan, Lowe and Mack Hansen, he played every minute of.
England play off a midfield attacking scrum, and as they move the ball left, Van der Flier quickly reads their intentions by darting off the scrum in support of his defence.
Keep an eye on the red scrum cap below, as Van der Flier makes up huge ground. Aki puts in a big tackle on Steward, who does well to keep the attack alive.
Henry Arundell cuts back inside and just as the young winger thinks he has evaded the clutches of Van der Flier, the flanker snags him, with Caelan Doris and Jamison Gibson-Park also getting involved by holding Arundell up and forcing the turnover just before half-time.
All of the above examples are mini victories within the game itself, which proved decisive in Ireland’s Grand Slam.
As impressive as Farrell’s side’s defence has been, there will be times when it is breached, but how you react defines success.
For Ireland, their ability to scramble better than any other team is one of the main reasons why they were crowned champions in such emphatic style.