It couldn’t be scripted better. Not even if Steven Spielberg had conceived it. With the Six Nations Championship securely in the bag, Joe Schmidt’s men now have a chance to land the biggest prize of all: the holy of holies, the elusive and much coveted Grand Slam. That the chance comes on St Patrick’s Day at Twickenham adds an ultimate layer of sweetness to an already appetising dish. It truly doesn’t get any bigger than this. History beckons for relentless Ireland.
It’s almost as if we’re rapacious. In the ordinary scheme of things, the Six Nations trophy does very nicely thank you. Ireland’s championship win is certainly no mean achievement and Joe Schmidt’s squad is rightly proud of its progress to date. But there’s room for more. We know that. The players know that. The moment is nigh. Saturday March 17, 2018 is the time to deliver. During this unusual championship campaign it’s felt like the men in green have been playing within themselves; that although Irish performances have been remorselessly functional, there’s another gear still to be found. Another level.
Chances like this don’t come around too often. It’s nine years since an Irish team last attempted this feat and it seems a veritable lifetime. Not just the game, but the world itself has changed utterly in the intervening years. At the time, we hoped it would be the start of something special; that days like this would become a regular occurrence. What we were, in fact, witnessing was the end of a golden generation but not before it had permanently cemented its place in rugby folklore. You see, that’s the uncomfortable truth. Grand Slam chances are seldom. As rare as hen’s teeth. There’s a reason we’ve only won two in our long history.
Therefore, the moment must be seized. But how mammoth a task. Ireland’s mission isn’t just challenging, it’s onerous and monumentally troublesome. Yes, Ireland have comfortably been the best team in the 2018 Six Nations by a country mile and, although still searching for peak form, Schmidt’s side has played the best rugby so far. The table doesn’t lie, after all. While form and performance undoubtedly favour the Irish, Twickenham is a venue like no other. Ireland’s London record has often made for grim reading but recent events underpin the enormity of the task. Eddie Jones’s boys haven’t lost at English rugby HQ since 2015. As fortresses go, that’s pretty impregnable credentials.
And yet Ireland provide much hope. The Green Machine has been relentless and clinical this year and has battered every opponent into seemingly inevitable submission. Jacob Stockdale is a revelation on the wing and scores tries with the careless abandon of a kid playing footy in the back garden. However, the 2018 vintage has class all over the park. Keith Earls is reborn on the other wing, James Ryan a revelation and Bundee Aki looks to the manor born in the centre. In the final analysis, the class of 2018 may lack the overall quality of their 2009 equivalents, but in terms of work ethic, battle hardness and composure, Schmidt’s charges look superior.
It barely needs reiteration, but if Ireland prevail, they will have Johnny Sexton to thank above all. Sexton is the real deal: Ireland’s best player, most valuable commodity and the man opponents fear most. In the inexorable Irish march to glory, it’s easy to forget they wouldn’t have got anywhere near this finale without the Irish fly-half’s Parisian masterclass.
A Grand Slam victory would be the ultimate vindication and fitting reward for one of Ireland’s greatest ever footballers. ’09’s Slam provided a deserved and tangible accolade for Ireland’s best ever player; ensuring a peerless career wouldn’t be tarnished by the ugly spectre of underachievement. Make no mistake, Sexton is as important now as O’Driscoll was then. If anyone can drag us over the line through sheer force of will, it’s definitely Sexton.
Saturday is a massive occasion. It’s sure to be tense, dramatic, breathtaking and spellbinding. The ambitious Irish taking on a chastened and smarting England in their own back yard; with the cherished Slam on the line. This is massive. As big as it gets. Do or die. There’s something magical about St Patrick’s week. No doubt, this time of year evokes something inside Irish people. Look at the invading hordes that descend on Cheltenham every year chasing their own pot of gold.
But it will take more than magic to upset a provoked and wounded England on home turf. Jones’s men may be vulnerable but still hold so much in their favour. For all that, potential Irish Slams don’t come around often and Schmidt’s boys must make hay while the sun shines. They’ll have to do it the hard way but that’s the way it goes sometimes. This is Ireland’s shot at greatness. The visitors by a whisker!
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