Grand Slam breakdown: Behind the scenes of Ireland's triumph
Gerry Thornley talks to those involved on and off the pitch and in the stands of a never to be forgotten weekend
Conor Murray leads the Ireland team in a lap of honour at Twickenham after the victory over England. Photograph: Getty Images
Beast from the East
The team bus travelled by ferry on the Wednesday before the game, with all of the equipment and players’ bags
“It was a bit choppy on the sea I believe,” says Ger Carmody, the squad’s head of operations.
As well as their driver, Dave Gentels, this advance party included Sinead Bennett, the IRFU’s team services manager; Ruth Wood-Martin, the squad’s nutritionist; and one of the physios, Willie Bennett. They set up the hotel, ensuring all the room keys were laid out, and the food, treatment room and team room all set up.
On the Thursday the squad left Dublin Airport at 4pm, and stayed in the Richmond Hill Hotel for the first time, as England had moved into Ireland’s usual base, Syon Park.
The Captain’s Run was at Twickenham at Friday lunchtime, before returning to their hotel. They had a walk-through that evening before dinner. “Then there was the usual collection of shorts and socks in John Moran’s room,” says Carmody in reference to the squad’s kit man.
It was during the Captain’s Run that Carmody and co were briefed by the Six Nations on the format for trophy and medal presentations. Ireland would be receiving medals individually for winning the Championship, the question being whether they would be receiving the Triple Crown trophy as well.
St Patrick’s Day, 2018. England v Ireland
Andrew Porter was playing only his seventh Test, and had been part of the Irish Under-20s alongside James Ryan and Jacob Stockdale which had reached the World Cup final less than two years ago. Here he was, at 22 facing the biggest game of his fledgling career, and trying hard to take his mind off the game.
“I tried to convince myself that it was just another game but then the other side of my head was saying this was the biggest game of my life so far. Sometimes I get nervous before games and I struggle to eat. I just tried to take my mind off it as much as possible.”
Every player had their own room. “I’m not sure if that was good or bad because left on your own you can be with your thoughts a bit too much sometimes. I woke up a few times in the night in a bit of a sweat.” He was up by 7am to get an early breakfast.
08.00-09.30 Breakfast, Dining area
Three successive 2.15 kick-offs at home meant the squad were used to this routine, so some opted for a lie-on.
Richie Murphy, the team’s kicking and skills coach: “I was pretty chilled. I was up at about 8 o’clock, had breakfast, went for a little bit of a stroll around, not far because it was so cold. Normally you’d be preparing for the next game but as this was the last match of the championship you didn’t have any ‘prep’, so I watched a little bit of Soccer AM.”
Murphy’s wife Stephanie was with him. “When we were on holidays during the summer she said: ‘I think I’ll go to Twickenham. I think it’s going to be a special game.’ Quite a few of the wives were around and they all met up on Saturday morning and went off into town.”
10.45am: The squad assembled for a walk-through in the hotel car park.
Porter: “There’s normally a good bit of banter and the lads were in high spirits. The energy was pretty good. We have a backs v forwards game.” The winners? “Ah, the forwards. We’re on a bit of a roll at the moment.”
11.15 Pre-Match Meal
Porter admits: “It was a bit of a struggle trying to get that down. I was force feeding myself a bit of ‘spag bol’.”
The squad had an hour to have any strapping done that was required in the medical room.
Johnny Sexton afterwards described the week as “weird” and “horrible in many ways. People were talking about us trying to enjoy it but I found it very tough to enjoy the build up. It was nerve racking at times.”
Seán Cronin has now played in all 15 matches of the three Six Nations titles achieved under Joe Schmidt, but admitted on the Second Captains podcast: “From a personal point of view I don’t think I’ve been as nervous leading into a game. I’ve been involved in some big games down through the years but everyone just knew that these opportunities don’t come around very often.”
Willie Mullins came down from Cheltenham on the morning of the match after training seven winners during the festival. He’d only been to two away games previously, the Triple Crown win at the end of Cheltenham week in Twickenham in 2006, and Ireland’s Grand Slam coronation in Cardiff at the end of Cheltenham week in 2009, so he knows how to pick a rugby winner or two as well.
“After Cheltenham, I just wanted something non-racing, and it was great to get tickets. As luck would have it, on Friday night I was having a drink with Kieran McManus,” says Mullins, of JP’s son, who was also going to the game and offered Mullins a lift. “He said he was leaving at 10am ‘sharp’ and not to be late. So, I had my sausages and rashers by 10, but he didn’t appear until 10.55. Myself, Kieran, and his wife Anne-Marie set off to the match.”
Mullins and McManus both had to collect their tickets in Richmond.
“So Kieran joined us for fish and chips in Pier One, with a few friends of mine.”
Lynne Cantwell is the most capped Ireland Women’s player of all time, with 87 caps, and was part of the team that won the Grand Slam in 2013, and reached the World Cup semi-finals in 2014 after beating New Zealand. The latter was “more significant for the future of the game for me, but as an Irish person the Grand Slam was bigger.”
She lives in Twickenham, but had spent the previous week in Dublin as a pundit in the RTÉ studios for the Irish women’s last two games against Scotland and England. “I only came back here on Saturday morning, so I was sharing the flight with a lot of supporters travelling on the day. The flight did get delayed, which had people worried as well as excited. But we got in at 1pm, as opposed to mid-day, which was cutting it fine for people going to the game.”
Cantwell herself couldn’t get tickets. “I don’t mind watching it at home to be honest.” But the delay, and expected traffic, forced a rethink, and she pulled in to Farnborough with her five-month-old baby daughter Scarlet.
“I listened to Michael Corcoran and Donal Lenihan in the car, which I was happy enough to do, and then I came back after the game and watched it. My partner was away, so I was going to be on my own watching the game anyway, in an empty apartment in Twickenham, which is funny. Scarlet let me listen to it, with a lot of dummies in her mouth!”
After training with Ulster on Friday, Tommy Bowe flew to London and also stayed in Richmond. On the morning of the game he met up with Jamie Heaslip and Donncha O’Callaghan, who were with guests from one of the team sponsors, Vodafone.
“We did a Q&A in the hotel that morning. I was very confident. I said I thought Ireland would win by more than a seven-point margin. Watching England, in the last couple of games, I just felt they looked tired, lethargic and lacked direction. When you have a spine through the middle of the team of Rory, CJ Stander, Murray, Sexton, Kearney, guys who know what it takes to win on the big occasion, I thought that Ireland were going to go into the game feeling pretty confident. Jamie and Donncha both forecast an Ireland win, although they thought it would be a lot tighter with the Twickenham factor.”
“Then we went to the Guinness tent outside the stadium where the craic was good – Irish supporters galore. It was my first time in Twickenham and not playing, and Jamie said it was the first Irish game he’d been to since he picked up that injury at the end of the Six Nations last year.”
12.40 Team Coach
The squad assembled for a very short meeting before their bus journey to the ground.
“The journey to the ground was the best part of the day before the game,” says Porter. “It’s always great when you’re rocking up to the stadium seeing all the Irish fans screaming at the green bus. There was almost a sea of green on the way to Twickenham .”
He was tuned in to his customary pre-match sounds. “I’m into rock and heavy metal before games. A bit of Metallica.”
Unlike Paris, and in other cities, no police escort is provided. The bus pulled up to Twickenham at about 1.10pm, five minutes ahead of schedule and ahead of England.
TV3 and ITV cameras recorded the squad disembarking through a sizeable crowd, mostly English fans singing Swing Low.
Seven minutes after arrival, Schmidt did his obligatory interviews with TV3 and ITV, while Simon Easterby was interviewed by RTÉ Radio, in the tunnel.
While the players read the match programme and listened to music, Rory Best went out for the coin toss in the tunnel. Dylan Hartley won and chose ends, so Best opted to kick-off. “Schmidt and Andy Farrell each spoke, and then it was pretty much left to the players,” says Murphy.
Murphy, as usual, was one of the first out onto the pitch to set up the cones for the warm-up before he was joined by the kickers. Whereas the day before the wind had been still, come matchday it was “quite blustery”.
“It was also about 13 degrees when we were in there on the Friday. You could have run around in a t-shirt and a pair of shorts, and then it was zero or minus one on matchday, which effects the hardness of the ball. The ball doesn’t fly half as far in those cold conditions.”
Johnny Sexton and Joey Carbery came out first, to be followed by Conor Murray.
“Johnny and Joey would start with particular drills, then do their own routines. Conor doesn’t really do too many drills. He just goes out and kicks at goal. Johnny and Joey would do a few restarts before joining the rest of the lads for the warm-up.”
Six or seven minutes before the pre-match anthems, the squad return to the away dressingroom. Under Six Nations regulations, both squads assemble in the tunnel before entering the pitch together.
2.45pm – Kick-off.
5th minute: Garry Ringrose try. England 0 Ireland 7.
“The ball flight was straight down the middle,” says Murphy of Sexton’s conversion.
Mullins likened the try to “having a winner on the first day at Cheltenham. They settled much better after that I imagine. If you take the lead you can take a little bit of a breather, but they didn’t seem to take a breather. They kept pressing, and that’s the one thing about this team. They can keep pressing, and they don’t seem to run out of steam.”
“But for me, getting that first score was crucial; not to be down in an away game and having to come from behind, that gave them a great chance. That to me was the crucial part.”
23 mins: Sexton’s missed penalty.
Murphy: “It was about 38 metres in line with the right post. The wind was coming off the right side, but the ball went dead straight. You would have thought that that ball would have moved in the wind but it didn’t shift at all. But we got a lineout to launch off. I think Johnny would probably say that was tactical.”
As against Wales, it turned into a good miss against the post.
24 mins: CJ Stander try. Off the lineout, Sexton feinted to work his wraparound with Tadhg Furlong, who instead spins and transfers the ball deftly to Bundee Aki. He breaks the line, and passes inside to the supporting Stander, who rumbles on and scores against the post. Sexton tapped over the conversion for a 14-0 lead.
“I taught him [Furlong] that pass,” jokes Porter. The younger tighthead had run that move in training too. “I was almost a bit annoyed they ran the play because I knew they wouldn’t be doing it when I came on then.”
“Ah no, it was brilliant. He [Furlong] is one of the most skilled players in the team and for a tighthead it’s incredible. We’d run that one into the ground [in training] really trying to perfect that one. Everyone did their job perfectly.”
34 minutes: Joey Carbery temporarily replaces Sexton for the rest of the half.
Murphy: “Joey looked quite assured, organised the guys, picked his passes, carried a couple of balls and he got Garry Ringrose into a little bit of space and then Conor spots Richard Wigglesworth on that touchline and gets Jacob away.”
40 + 2 minutes: Jacob Stockdale try, Carbery conversion. England 5 Ireland 21.
Stockdale has described Bowe as his boyhood hero, and Bowe said: “I was delighted for him, to back himself to do that, a chip over the top. He’s been a credit to himself, and been a vital part of Ireland winning that Grand Slam. He’s a good, pretty grounded guy; quiet but confident. He’s nice to hang around with and stuff. I’d be very impressed with him. Whatever about how he is off the pitch, when he’s on the pitch he fully backs himself, which is great.”
Again the TMO referral allowed Murphy to bring drinks onto the pitch as well as the kicking tee for Carbery’s conversion, 15 metres in from the left touchline. “Joey’s worked really hard on that part of his game, and I’ve seen massive improvements in him. His process is much, much better.”
Carmody sat in the row below the coaches, alongside David Nucifora. “What I do is if somebody is sin-binned, I’ll time it. I’ll do all the timings with Jason Cowman, do the countdown with him at half-time so that players know how much time they have with each of the coaches. Typically, you’ve got about 11 and a half or 12 minutes of actual time in the changingroom. The mood was good. Very positive.”
Murphy: “Half-time was very controlled. We tried to give the players some time to have a think and get their breath back. Then Joe and Andy will both spend a bit of time talking about the attack and defence, before the units will break off. It’s quite clinical in its delivery really.”
Up in the stands, Mullins felt confident. “Coming out for the second half I thought it was theirs to lose. They had it won, I thought. They just had to keep playing good rugby, and they did. Meanwhile we were just trying to keep warm. It was Arctic.”
The scoreless third quarter.
Murphy: “You’re living it a little on the touchlines, trying to get key messages in to the players. They dealt with that period quite well under some pressure from England.”
60 mins: Murray penalty. England 5 Ireland 24.
Murphy: “Johnny had put himself through a lot and was a little sore and stiff at that stage. Conor is a pretty cool customer. He’s very focused and nothing fazes him. He’s a very hard guy to fluster. He went through his process and delivered a beautiful strike straight down the middle.”
Along with Cronin, Porter came on for an English lineout in the 65th minute, from which Elliot Daly scored his second try, making him think for a moment if he was bad luck. But the huddle behind the goal-line was calm and positive.
To the satisfaction of Porter and the other forward replacements, they soon won a scrum penalty. Joe Marler had replaced Mako Vunipola before Porter came on and like most in the opposition ranks, he had never played against Marler before. “He cracked a few jokes before we hit the first scrum. He’s a solid, solid player. You’d know where he was around the pitch. He’d be talking a good bit.”
71 mins: Carbery, who had just replaced Sexton again for the remainder of the game, misses a penalty.
Murphy: “At that end, the wind actually seemed to be going the other way. The kick started inside the left post and just moved to the left. It was a pretty good strike.”
Up in the stands, Bowe had been even more confident of the outcome since half-time. “The Vodafone people topped up the pints at half-time, so everybody was pretty boisterous and felt that the Grand Slam was almost in the bag. The English supporters do get a bad rap but they were pretty appreciative how good an Irish team they were coming up against.”
“You’re always going to have that bit of ‘I’d love to have been there’. But at the same time I was delighted for the guys and for Rory in particular, and I was delighted that I was at the game.”
78 minutes: Cronin’s tackle forces Mike Brown’s foot over the touchline by Ireland’s right corner flag.
Cronin: “I suppose no better man to drive into touch. I think he looked a bit despondent but in fairness he actually came up to me afterwards and said: ‘Great hit.’ So he’s not actually that bad of a guy off the pitch.”
79th minute. England have a scrum, but they can’t score twice from here.
The coaches and management had begun joining the replaced players on the touchline, and began celebrating.
Exchanging a hug with Sexton was a special moment for Murphy.
“You just look at somebody, and there’s a feeling. I just said ‘well done’ to him, but it was a time for the players. They’re the guys who went out and did it, and you try to let them enjoy it because they’ve achieved something that’s very special.”
82 mins: Jonny May try. England 15 Ireland 24.
But for that try it would have been England’s heaviest defeat at Twickenham in Five or Six Nations history. No matter. After May touched down, Rob Kearney shrugged his shoulders and smiled.
Carmody, who was also part of the contrasting 2009 Grand Slam finale, came down to pitchside about five minutes before the end, and asked Sexton and Peter O’Mahony to accept the Triple Crown, and briefed Best on collecting the Six Nations trophy.”
“The medals were handed out in numerical order, starting from number one, Cian Healy, and taking out Rory, Pete and Johnny. We had 28 players with us and all 28 went up.” In addition to the matchday 23, Fergus McFadden, Robbie Henshaw, Ian Keatley, John Ryan and Quinn Roux were all there.
For the second time, Mullins had witnessed a Grand Slam. “We all thought we had a better rugby team but in an away game you never know what can happen, and that an English team at home could rise to the occasion. But I was surprised actually, looking at the betting, that it was even money at the start. The way they were playing this year, if I was a betting man I would have said it was a fantastic price. I was wondering ‘what’s the catch?’”
Mullins has met Schmidt. “It was at a charity function down in Carlow. He is a fantastic trainer. You call him a coach, I call him a trainer. Nearly a colleague.”
The players went over to the winners’ board for photographs and then conducted a lap of honour, while the coaches and management stayed by the tunnel entrance. As the English fans had left, it became a very Irish party. Players could pick out family and friends in the crowd.
TV3 picked out a tearful James Furlong hugging his son Tadhg. Cronin embraced his wife, parents and father-in-law. “I think I saw a small tear in the old fella’s eye after the game. They were just chuffed. They’re obviously a huge part of it as well. My parents and my family have always followed me and my brothers everywhere so it was fantastic.”
Porter met his father Ernie, the former Old Wesley inside centre, and his cousin, Rob Priestman. “They were down on our level and it was great to see them there. My dad almost had me in a bit of tears. He’s a big softie.”
Back in a room adjoining the away dressingroom “all the photographs were taken by Billy (Stickland) and Dan (Sheridan) of Inpho, and some champagne was sprayed,” says Carmody.
Murphy: “We had a beer in the changingroom, those 20 minutes or half an hour, where people are just sitting around having a chat are special in many ways, because it’s amazing how quick these things come and go. You’ll never forget the feeling but a lot of those boys would be back in training on Tuesday, and then they are all getting ready to play in Europe on Saturday- and Sunday-week. Their focus will flick very quickly.”
As for Mullins: “We were lucky enough to have passes for the Green Room. I’d never heard of it, but it’s a big corporate hospitality area, and celebrities were being interviewed, like Lawrence Dallaglio and Mike Tindall, and Ronan Keating sang The Fields of Athenry. It was a fantastic end to a great day, principally having a very warm place to drink while waiting for the traffic to subside.”
From there Mullins and his group returned to central London. “The King's Road was a sea of green, but there were a good few Irish in our hotel as well. I was fairly whacked after the week, and had an early night.”
Schmidt and Best attended the main press conference, where Schmidt spoke of his “relief” and “pride”, while also revealing it had been getting fairly wet in the changingroom.
Players were selected for post-match interviews in the mixed zone, one of them being Sexton. “Celebrating with the lads for the last hour, they are the moments that you treasure; the moments that make the bad times worthwhile and all the sacrifices worthwhile. I’m just glad to get out the other side of it. We saved our best performance for last which is always very satisfying, and some of our defence was incredible. We made Andy proud on the first day back in Twickenham for him.”
Back at her apartment nearby, Cantwell watched the game in full. “You know what, if you take all the emotion out of it, Ireland were just so much better, as much as England are struggling to find their form whatever is going on within them.
“The other thing that stood out for me, from the bigger picture point of view, was this interface between old and new, with the average age of the team in the last 15 minutes, which was just sensationally young. I love that combination and something I relate to in our dominant era, that fabulous link between old and young which I think is a really potent mix.”
She ended her night with an “unglamorous” takeaway from Nandos, “while everyone else was out celebrating.”
6.30pm: Post-Match Function commences. The Spirit of Rugby Suite, West Stand Level 2.
8.30pm: Players, management and partners departed Twickenham on two buses back to the Richmond Hill Hotel.
Carmody: “We had a function for the players and families. The numbers were limited to about 150. It was a fairly quiet, nice, relaxed affair. I think everyone stayed. We just enjoyed our company. People got photos with the trophies. Johnny was ‘dj’ so he had a bit of everything played through the speaker system.
“Some were later than others. I went to bed about 1.30/2 o’clock.”
Indeed it was later for others.
Murphy: “It was half past something, definitely.”
Sunday coming home
Carmody and others had been making contingency plans in the event of an Irish win, and 30,000 tickets were to be distributed for free via Ticketmaster for the planned homecoming at the Aviva.
“Unfortunately the snow scuppered our plans, which was very disappointing.” The news was relayed to Carmody just after 11am on Sunday morning. “It was a real shame. It would have been great for the players to see that support in the stadium, but it would also have been great for all the other people involved.”
Carmody tried to inform the players of the changed plans in the team room at the Richmond Hill, namely a delay to their flight and the cancellation of the homecoming.
“When I first came to the team, Radio Gaga was my song, and I’m not a very good singer. Anytime I try to speak, if they’re in jovial mood, they’ll sing Radio Gaga. So when I got up and started to speak, Radio Gaga was blasted out over the speakers and the boys were jumping up and down, and dancing. They did it two or three times. It was great.”
The flight home
Porter: “I had the [Six Nations] Cup sitting on my lap for most of the flight. I was cradling it like a baby.”
After the plane’s passengers had alighted to the front, the team did so via the rear. Airport staff formed a cordon and fire engines blared.
Porter: “Loads of staff were there and the fire trucks had their sirens on. It was great to come home to that. They didn’t hold anything back.”
There had been two plans for the Shelbourne, one on the basis of a later arrival after the scheduled homecoming, and another following the latter’s cancellation. Given the increased occupancy of the hotel due to St Patrick’s weekend, the team management were put up around the corner in the Merrion Hotel. There was a sit-down meal for the squad, partners, families, some IRFU staff and sponsors from about 6.30pm.
The band Springbreak were hired for the night.
“There was bit of fun and a bit of dancing, some dodgy dancing, and the players were able to enjoy themselves. Some went out all right, and some of us just went to bed,” says Carmody. “I was whacked.”
For once, even Schmidt could relax.
Murphy: “Everyone talks about his attention to detail, but I think it’s his drive. He just wants the guys to be the best they can be. I know that’s a bit corny but every day he’s trying to drive the standards, to make the players better than they were the day before.
“The improvements that players made during the Six Nations, especially some of the young players, were massive, and they still have a long way to go, which is exciting. But when I saw him on Saturday night and Sunday, he was just delighted with what the guys have achieved.
“These are the days that are very special and they stay with you forever, but two days later they seem like the distant past. They go very quickly and the focus for everybody is on to the next challenge, which for us will be getting ready to go to Australia for a three-game tour.”
Some Paddy’s weekend though.