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'Going to London on St Patrick's Day and winning the Grand Slam will probably never be repeated'

Rugby pundits remember an unforgettable moment in Irish sporting history.
Sep 23rd 2019, 3:52 PM 7,554 1


SOME MOMENTS DESERVE to be immortalised.

Volkswagen have come on board as partners of The42, which will see them sponsor all of our rugby coverage for the 2019 World Cup in Japan. 

Ahead of the tournament, ‘Onward’ — an eight-part series — will be looking back at the unforgettable days from Joe Schmidt’s time in charge as he aims to end his six-year spell on a high.

In the penultimate piece, Ciaran Kennedy takes us through the 2018 Grand Slam win, while former Ireland hooker Shane Byrne, ex-Leinster and Connacht fly-half Andy Dunne and Virgin Media rugby commentator Dave McIntyre share their memories on video.

the-ireland-team-celebrate-winning-the-grand-slam Rory Best lifts the Six Nations trophy alongside his Ireland team-mates. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

The elements only made the occasion even more memorable. The middle of March, and snowflakes were gently drifting across the Twickenham pitch, clearly visible any time the television cameras panned across the faces of the players down below.

For Irish supporters, it was becoming increasingly clear that this was going to be a day they would remember for some time.

The party had started early, with first half tries from Garry Ringrose and CJ Stander putting Ireland firmly in the driving seat, and moving them closer to just a third ever Grand Slam.

Yet it was Jacob Stockdale’s moment of magic that really cranked it up a gear. Taking the ball in crowded conditions out on the left flank, the Ulster wing resorted to a tried and tested move that had often served him well — and would continue to do so over the next 12 months. As Mike Brown closed in, Stockdale chipped the ball over the England fullback before hitting the gas.

The ball bobbled, bouncing ahead after connecting with Stockdale’s knee, with the wing somehow managing to dive and touch it down right on the endline. It was a superb effort that encapsulated so much of what this Irish team had done so well over the previous two months.

irelands-jacob-stockdale-scores-a-try Jacob Stockdale touches town against England. Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland

Determination, hard work, ingenuity, and a little sprinkle of stardust thrown in on top. Joey Carbery, on as a temporary replacement for Johnny Sexton, kicked the extras to make it 21-5 on the stroke of half-time, and Ireland had one hand on the Grand Slam.

It been a sublime first half from Joe Schmidt’s men, who had taken an early lead thanks to another mix of luck and endeavour.

With a little over five minutes on the clock Sexton sent a booming kick high up into the air, the ball dropping between Ireland fullback Rob Kearney, and his opposite number, Anthony Watson. Kearney managed to flick the ball out of Watson’s grasp as it dropped, with the ball breaking loose on the turf as the two players fell to the ground. Garry Ringrose was first to react having chased Sexton’s kick, and pounced over Watson to score the opening try. The Grand Slam was on.

Ireland had enjoyed plenty of success in the Six Nations under Schmidt, winning back to back titles in 2014 and 2015. Yet a clean sweep had managed to elude them on both occasions. In 2014, they fell short in Twickenham in Round 3, losing out by just three points. The following year, a slow start in Murrayfield cost them dearly on the opening weekend against Scotland.

This time, they were determined it would be different. They had negotiated the 2018 campaign in real style. Sexton’s late drop-goal in Paris secured a winning start on a dramatic night in Paris. They brushed aside the challenge of Italy at the Aviva, survived a thrilling late fightback by Wales in the same stadium, and comfortably beat Scotland in a third straight home tie before the final round trip to play Eddie Jones’ England.

johnny-sexton-celebrates-kicking-the-winning-drop-goal Sexton celebrates 'Le Drop'. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

In freezing conditions, nobody expected Ireland to enjoy a comfortable afternoon. England had looked off-colour throughout the tournament, but had won their last 14 matches at Twickenham, and were unbeaten at home in the Six Nations for six years.

Yet Ringrose’s try ensured a dream start, and the visitors built on that lead midway through the half thanks to a wonderful move straight off the training ground. Peter O’Mahony collected a Rory Best lineout, and delivered the ball to Conor Murray.

The scrum-half fed his halfback partner Sexton, who in turn moved the ball on to Tadhg Furlong. The tighthead shaped up to return the ball to Sexton, but instead caught the charging English defence off-guard with a beautifully cushioned reverse pass to Bundee Aki.

The centre charged forward with Ringrose to his right, but fired a perfectly timed pass in the opposite direction to Stander, who managed to slide in at the posts with two English bodies hanging off him. It was a superbly executed move that had Schmidt’s fingerprints all over it.

England were allowed back into the game shortly after O’Mahony was sent to the sin-bin, as Elliot Daly profited from a neat Owen Farrell grubber, before Stockdale’s wonderful third ensure Ireland ended a stellar opening 40 minutes with all the momentum.

If the first half had been all about Ireland’s creativity, the second showcased their ability to get down and fight. England fought back, but were simply left with too much to do. Keith Earls’ ankle tap prevented Daly a certain second try, before the England wing eventually broke through after 65 minutes, with Jonny May adding a consolation try with the clock in the red. Crucially, England missed all three conversion attempts on the day, with Ireland making all of theirs count, along with a sweetly stuck penalty from Murray on the hour mark.

There was no arguing that Ireland were deserving champions, and their key men all stood up on the day. James Ryan was once again immense as he continued his remarkable habit of never losing a game in his young professional career.

the-ireland-team-celebrate-winning-the-grand-slam Scenes in the Ireland dressing room. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Dan Leavy, Stander, Ringrose and Kearney were all also outstanding, while man of the match Furlong showcased why he was being talked up as the world’s premier tighthead. The Leinster man made 18 tackles and missed none, while Ryan also recorded a perfect return from his 16 tackles.

Naturally, head coach Schmidt was delighted with what he had seen from his squad.

I thought our boys showed that they can deliver in the big moments on a number of occasions today — they worked incredibly hard and merited the win,” Schmidt said.

“We showed a little bit of class where we opened them up and at the other end of the pitch it was pure courage.”

In the St Patrick’s Day snow, as the Fields of Athenry echoed around England’s home ground, those Irish fans that had made the short journey across the Irish Sea knew they were witnessing something special as Ireland joined the classes of 1948 and 2009 by becoming Grand Slam champions.

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