4th try
Mack Hansen, Conor Murray, Cian Healy and Jack Conan celebrate with Rob Herring, the scorer of Ireland’s fourth try. INPHO/DAN SHERIDAN

Ireland's Grand Slam is 1st ever completed at Lansdowne Road

Ireland 29; England 16

At last, Dublin gets to salute an Ireland Grand Slam-winning team.

After a first slam in Ravenhill in 1948, Ireland had to wait until 2009 in Cardiff for its second and then Twickenham nine years later for the third, it was fitting that this side in green should complete the task at the Aviva Stadium on Lansdowne Road last Saturday evening.

And as the rugby public and general fans celebrated with Head Coach Andy Farrell, skipper Johnny Sexton and the rest of the squad, it soon became apparent that this was a stop on the journey - the real destination is the World Cup later this year in France.

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Drama was in the air all Saturday night when England were finally put to the sword as Farrell looked forward, Sexton looked back and forward and the rest of us wondered where this voyage of fancy would finally bring us to in this gripping roller-coaster ride we are currently on.

If the Six Nations series showed us anything, it is that adversity and overwhelming favorites are now terms welcomed into the bosom of the green vessel Farrell is building for the voyage into hopefully deeper, uncharted waters.

Ireland used to be a two-trick pony - we either won by surprise or we lost gallantly, Nowadays, we know how to play badly and win; go behind and figure out how to down a foe on higher ground and  even smile as we lose players to injury who a short time ago would have been considered crucial to our winning cause.

On Saturday, we misplaced kicks with abandon, slapped down passes as if trying to shoot down our own ambitions, yet conjured up special moments to secure sufficient wind in our sails to guide us into port to cheers of victory.

All the old superstitions of falling behind, of being overwhelming favorites, of predictions of 30-point wins certainly made us feel and look uncomfortable in the opening half which was saved by the savvy of Sexton and the brain of the move which had England chasing shadows as we sent Dan Sheehan scurrying over for the game’s first try.

It was more than a converted score though; it was a statement that no matter how hard England tried to lock up their defensive lines, we had the sleight of hand to pick their locks and their pockets at times of greatest need.

That is a sporting gift bestowed on few in modern day competition and with Farrell telling us that we have so much more to do to be better, the chances are that the road to Valhalla is still a work in progress rather than a signposted highway.

In the game itself, England will rightly point to an outstanding first-half of defiance undermined at the end by the red carding of fullback Freddie Steward for a shoulder tackle to the head against Hugh Keenan, who also had to depart for the remaining 42 minutes of the game.

The fact that England reduced the half-time deficit of 10-6 to 10-9 and were still in the game according to the scoreboard ignores the signs that were beginning to flow in the cold March night last Saturday.

Steward had played well and would have made a difference but there were signs that Ireland had turned the corner and figured out England by the time of his dismissal. Steve Borthwick’s side came with a plan to fight, fight, fight but they had the subtlety of a wrecking ball in their approach. And while that put the Irish on the backfoot for some time, the brainstrust on field, that is Sexton, James Ryan and Co, had sorted out how to move the big pack around so that they were gasping for breath and breaks in play at every turn.

So much so in fact that referee Jaco Peype copped their game and issued several warnings that their systematic efforts to go down for medical aid was something he would not allow to happen.

Who could blame them for trying? They had put a lot of their eggs in the opening basket in the hope that they would barge over and take the Irish citadel by storm. Even at 6-0 thanks to two Owen Farrell penalty kicks, Ireland had not felt any real penetration and once Peter O’Mahony launched us forward on a midfield scurry after 15 minutes and from which Sexton kicked our first three points, there was security that we would only get better as our visitors visibly went in the other direction.

You got a sense of that as England were pulled for 10 first-half penalties - a sign that the indiscipline that dogged the Eddie Jones era was still there if opponents knew how to put pressure on their pack.

Even with Farrell the younger and his lieutenants fist pumping against reality as they played a 10-9 game by converting their last successful penalty, the inevitability of Ireland’s play deceiving a rapidly tiring opponent was becoming more obvious.

On the hour mark that is precisely what happened when Sexton lofted a great ball into the right corner which caught Anthony Watson and forced a scrum five. From that, Ireland shuffled left and right before coming back to the same side with Bundee Aki ignoring Josh Van der Flier’s decoy run to send Robbie Henshaw in for a try which Sexton converted to put two scores between the sides at 17-9.

Sexton entered the game on the same points total as Ronan O’Gara, as co-leader in Six Nations history. By now he was seven points ahead with two more to come when he landed a brilliant kick from the touchline after Sheehan had burrowed his way over for Ireland’s third and his own second try.

Jamie George was on the end of a huge England maul to claim a seven pointer but with Sheehan and Sexton now in dry dock with their day’s work done, it was left to Rob Herring to make it a great day for hookers by scoring a carbon copy of the try which sealed the series in New Zealand last summer.

Ross Byrne missed the convert from the same place as Sexton had scored but by then the bonus try had been secured and Ireland were home and hosed.

Afterwards Farrell was full of praise for everyone in the team, with a special word for his captain, who he described as the best ever Ireland player. “For captain Johnny here to finish his Six Nations campaign; he's been saying all week that this is what dreams are made of, it doesn't come around that often. There's a lot of stars that have aligned over the last eight weeks and accumulated into this evening."

Although not in the national psyche as a Jack Charlton yet, there is something about Farrell, other than his name, that is very Irish. It’s the way he says things. "I don't know whether to laugh or cry," he said. "It’s a weird feeling at this moment in time. I’m just elated for the boys, just to get it over the line. Because it meant so much for them, especially being here, at home. Only the fourth one in Irish history, you know?

"So we felt a duty that we couldn’t let people down. I would say there is a sense of relief to go get the job done, but immensely proud. Grand Slams are not just won on nights like this. They’re won not just over the eight-week period but all the time that we’ve been together, we’ve been building towards this. I’m just glad we got the job done," he stressed.

Ever the pragmatist, he said he would enjoy this victory for a few days and then look at improving everyone for the journey ahead.

"We’re a good side that's nowhere reached our potential. I kept saying over the last couple of weeks that that's what we are striving to do. Like Johnny said, we'll get a few people back to compete and to train hard and, you know, everyone is going to get better in the summer. We'll spend a lot more time together, so we expect our side when we get to the first game of the World Cup to be a lot better than we are. That's the reality."

Sexton’s summary of the game? "We didn’t play our best but what a team, what a group of coaches. They prepared us so well. We did nothing that they told us, we did the exact opposite and made things hard for ourselves.

"England are a top-class team. To come here and get a win on St Patrick’s weekend is unbelievable. We set out to win a Grand Slam at the start of the year. We had a Triple Crown last year, we wanted to build on that, and it came down to today,” Farrell said. “We talked about this day eight weeks ago.We finally got to the big final and we didn’t quite nail it, but we did enough. I'm so proud of the lads to stay in it. It doesn't feel like the end. There's plenty more left in this team. We need to keep building. We certainly need to improve on today.”

Ireland: Hugo Keenan; Mack Hansen, Robbie Henshaw, Bundee Aki, James Lowe; Johnny Sexton (capt), Jamison Gibson-Park; Andrew Porter, Dan Sheehan, Tadhg Furlong; Ryan Baird, James Ryan; Peter O'Mahony, Josh van der Flier, Caelan Doris Replacements: Rob Herring, Cian Healy, Tom O'Toole, Kieran Treadwell, Jack Conan, Conor Murray, Ross Byrne, Jimmy O'Brien

 

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