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Premature celebrations, dormant quality and harsh lessons: Slambush roles reversed for Ireland

We spoke with two Englishmen familar with the difficulties of the final hurdle in a Grand Slam chase about what can go wrong.

TOMORROW, THE HUNTERS become the hunted.

Four times this century, England have rolled down Lansdowne Road in search of the fifth and final installment to complete a Grand Slam. Of those four attempts, only the unbeatable, soon-to-be World Cup-winning English group of 2003 managed to successfully navigate the ambush.

Dylan Hartley with the RBS 6 Nations trophy Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

On the three other occasions — 2001, 2011 and 2017 — the glory of the day belonged to Ireland, even if the trophy found itself in white ribbons and English hands.

This weekend, the roles are very much reversed in Twickenham.

Up to this point, Ireland have done everything right off the field since the title was put beyond everyone elses reach; they haven’t been presumptuous about completing a clean sweep in the Championship, they haven’t gone overboard celebrating the title – quite the opposite in fact:

“They won the Championship last Saturday and it was no different to beating Wales or Italy,” said skills coach Richie Murphy.

However, since 1999 England have provided numerous valuable examples of how ticking the theoretical boxes is the easy part. Mustering up the intensity and ravenous will to win on matchday is more complicated.

“I’ve seen the soundbytes and Joe Schmidt saying none of the players are talking about (the Grand Slam) we didn’t neither,” Nick Easter, captain of the 2011 team who watched their Slam ambitions fizzle out in the Aviva Stadium, told The42 this week.

Nick Easter dejected Feeling like a champion? Nick Easter walks off the field in 2011. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“I remember vividly, we went: ‘right, let’s be honest, Ireland haven’t produced yet.’ They’d just lost to Wales – controversial quick-throw, Mike Phillips – they’d lost a very turgid game.”

That was a bitter pill alright, but wins over England have always been a useful salve to whatever ails this rugby nation.

“We spoke about the significance of the quality Ireland had with (Paul) O’Connell and (Brian) O’Driscoll and how it’s a different prospect when you’re going away from home.”

But it’s one thing talking about it and another thing dealing with it.

“What it came down to in that game, sad to say: the 50-50 battles, the desire and the energy was all with Ireland. I think we thought too much about our gameplan.

“We never thought we’d just have to turn up, we had a lot more respect than that. We knew it was going to be the hardest game. But we didn’t bring the same emotional energy that we brought to the Millennium Stadium on the first game and slowly, slowly we dropped off our standards.

“That desire, 50-50s, whatever you want to call it, and then (Ireland) played some good rugby and we were shell-shocked a bit.”

Source: Dan Desmond/YouTube

To really rub salt in the open wound of falling at the final hurdle of a Grand Slam bid, England’s kit suppliers had put together a glossy little ad in the expectation of completing five from five. With defeat, it proved embarrassing for England and their players, but of course it shared like wildfire in Ireland. No harm for Nike to see that Swoosh go viral.

“I only found out about that afterwards when there was a meme or video mock-up,” says Easter, with the distaste still clear in his voice seven years on.

“I wasn’t involved at all in anything that had gone on beforehand. I had absolutely no idea and I’m not sure if any other players had any idea.”

The corporate influence on a team’s image was much lower when Jason Leonard was helping England to the verge of Grand Slams at the turn of the century. The prop would go on to claim 114 English caps and win a World Cup, but not before some painful lessons about white line fever along the way.

Dan Luger and Peter Stringer Peter Stringer unleashes a trademark tap tackle to prevent Dan Luger from scoring a try in 2001. Source: INPHO

“1999, 2000 and 2001,” he corrects us when we refer to two failed Slam bids before they came good in 2003.

In ’99 England could have sealed the last Five Nations title as well as the Grand Slam, but fell foul of Neil Jenkins’ boot in Cardiff and Scotland were able to sneak in and take the pot. In 2000, the reigning champions had a nightmare, losing the opener to Italy and then to Ireland, France and Wales. Yet when it came to a wild April meeting with England in Murrayfield, they found a way to win.

Come 2001, Ireland were becoming a force in Europe, though Foot and Mouth scuppered Grand Slam hopes when the Championship resumed with a September loss to Scotland.

By the time England came to Dublin in late October, Ireland were fully revved up. A vicious defensive effort and then a slick line-out moved capped by Anthony Foley’s pop pass to Keith Wood set the tone.

Keith Wood 2002 Source: ©INPHO

“Every time we lost those game we learned something from that,” says Leonard.

“In a bizarre way that success (2003 Grand Slam and World Cup) was through those three failures, because it was a case of: ‘right we’ve learned our lesson now’.”

Leonard does not believe this is an Ireland without such lessons in their past. He points to difficult losses such as Murrayfield last season. Truth be told, there are quite a few away matches which spring to mind as potential learning curves. Twickenham would be a fine way to halt that perception.

There, Schmidt’s men will go up against a team with nothing to gain but the ruination of party. If they can cope with this, then they will be seriously battle-hardened with a World Cup year approaching.

“It’s a bit about pride. You want Twickenham to be a very hard ground to come to and to win at,” says Leonard, who along with Easter will be dialling the intensity only slightly up for tonight’s Legends clash with Ireland at the Twickenham Stoop.

There’s a lot of pride and passion England will want to release.

“And the pure fact that they’ve not actually played well this Six Nations by their own high standard so they’re due a good game.”

Sounds worryingly like Scotland in 2000, or Ireland in 2011 and 2017?

“Ireland are a very good side, the pressure will be on them. They’ve already won the Championship, which is fine, but going for a Grand Slam is how Ireland want to finish.”

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Ireland Legends v England Legends will take place at the Twickenham Stoop tonight, kick-off at 7pm; tickets are currently available at SportingClass.com and are available from £10. The game will be followed by a post-match function in the Twickenham surrounds.

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Sean Farrell

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