Ireland’s greatest Grand Slam triumph shows their best is still to come

Andy Farrell believes stunning Six Nations campaign is only part of the team’s journey forward into a World Cup

At about 9.40pm the partying and singing on the coach carrying the dress-suited victorious Grand Slammers of 2023 to the post-match dinner in the RDS was already in full flow. They were going to have a long night, or two, and they sure had earned it.

Just four of them in 128 years, yet the funny thing about winning Grand Slams is that they invariably highlight how difficult the damned things are to achieve almost much as the near misses. This was Ireland’s greatest, not only for the perfectly scripted coronation, but the manner they negotiated the challenges presented by five very different and contrasting matches.

All of the 32 players made telling contributions (with 13 different try scorers), while the game time of established front-liners such as Tadhg Furlong, Tadhg Beirne, Jamison-Gibson Park and Robbie Henshaw were restricted.

Yet they doused the Warren Gatland Welsh fire by scoring within the first two minutes of the Championship through Caelan Doris and a 24-point salvo in the first quarter. They outplayed France in an all-time classic. Helped by Conor Murray’s calming presence, they held their nerve in Rome. They laughed in the face of adversity against Scotland when Josh van der Flier took over the throwing in and with Cian Healy “debuting” at hooker.


The final leg against the oldest of auld enemies, dripping with history and England’s most intense performance of the Championship, was a reminder that they are human after all.

Despite all the evidence to the contrary, as demonstrated when defying history in New Zealand by winning the series decider against the All Blacks in Wellington, the magnitude of sealing a Grand Slam for the first time ever in Dublin induced this Irish team’s edgiest performance of the tournament.

Yet their character and belief again shone through and this was what pleased Andy Farrell, the defence coach for the 2018 Grand Slam.

“The memory of that one would have been Johnny’s drop goal obviously,” said Farrell of Sexton’s 45 metre drop goal after 41 phases deep into overtime in the opening win at the Stade de France. “Performing at Twickenham in the snow was a fantastic day away from home because that’s tough to go and do. But when we think back at what’s happened, you look at Robbie Henshaw who had an operation and thought he was never going to be involved, Tadhg Furlong exactly the same, Jamison Gibson-Park coming back in, players dropping out of the competition very early. A load of lads not having any game time.

“There was never a murmur of an excuse. We said from day one that we wanted to win the Grand Slam and we went about it as a squad. And that’s why I’m so pleased that all 47 players that’s been involved in the campaign are here to celebrate that.”

The dynamic, two-try performance of Dan Sheehan was all the more commendable given the six-day turnaround and that on Monday he appeared to have no chance of playing.

“We trained once and we believed in what we’ve done over the last eight weeks and it’s stood to us and that’s a massive credit to the coaching staff,” Farrell added.

“One, putting the plan in place. Two, being outstanding coaches, outstanding people and three, making sure that the players believed 100 per cent in what they’re preaching and do and that’s all credit to them.”

For all the nuances of their attacking game, for all the goal-line defiance of a team that comfortably conceded the least tries, six, the Irish head coach maintained before the Championship that the biggest area of growth in this team is mental.

“We don’t panic and do you know what, it really doesn’t matter, it could come down to the last two minutes of a game and we could still be behind, but we expect ourselves to be level-headed and be able to play what’s in front of us for that last two minutes. I think we’re not far off that.”

Farrell never doubted them and deep down, we never really did either. Ireland were never more than six points behind at any stage in their five games, and led at half-time in all five games as well. They’ve also contributed handsomely to what has probably been the most consistently entertaining Championship in many a year.

“What’s very pleasing in that regard is that we’re not a side who just kicks the leather off the ball and just goes for territory the whole time. We’re a side that likes to play some rugby, and territory and possession is pretty important for us and we still find a way how to generate good field position and dominate large parts of games.

“And it’s nice, isn’t it, to have that blend and to put that out on the field and believe in it. Our game’s in good shape but it’s nowhere near where we want it to be. That’s a great spot to be in.”

Inevitably, viewed in the prism of a World Cup year, there’s ample evidence to support the claims of both their talisman, the remarkable Johnny Sexton, and Farrell that their best is still to come.

“I said to you in New Zealand ‘now this was the start of our World Cup a year’. And it was and I suppose the most pleasing thing is that we’ve continued to be successful, to find a way.

“Everyone was nervous about that except us. This is part of the journey, isn’t it? Obviously, this stands on its own right, as does the New Zealand tour. But it’s part of the journey of us as a group going forward into a World Cup. We’ll get two or three months pre-season training for the first time together and I expect ourselves to be better obviously because of that.”

But for the rest of the weekend, all that could wait.

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times