Tommy Bowe column: ‘Emphatic Grand Slam triumph sets Ireland up for World Cup tilt’
It may not have been a vintage display, but in the end Ireland got the job done against England. And when there’s a Grand Slam at stake, that’s all that really matters.
It was great to be in Dublin on Saturday to watch Andy Farrell’s side put the finishing touches to a remarkable campaign that cemented Ireland’s place as the world’s top team.
There was a great atmosphere around Aviva Stadium, and it’s days like that when you see how the nation has been lifted by this team. Johnny Sexton was key to that, and the Ireland captain thankfully got the Six Nations dispatch he deserved.
But while Ireland will rightfully absorb the applause, you have to give England credit. Steve Borthwick’s side were at rock bottom after a crushing defeat to France at Twickenham, but they showed great fighting spirit and made it difficult for Ireland.
England were just four points clear when Freddie Steward was sent off for colliding with Hugo Keenan. By the letter of the law, it was probably the right choice, but that’s another incident that shows the need for a 20 minute red card in rugby. Super Rugby have tested it, but World Rugby must consider a global trial.
Saying that, however, I would have been confident of an Ireland win against England at 15. There is something special about this Irish game. They always find a way to win. This is what sets them apart in the Six Nations. For them, the World Cup does not come soon enough.
It is difficult to choose the Irish player of the tournament. I think James Ryan and Mack Hansen were both outstanding, while Caelan Doris might just end up getting the award for outstanding form.
But for me, Hugo Keenan was the best Irish player. He was involved in so many vital moments. His try against France springs to mind, as do his life-saving tackles against Welshman Rio Dyer and Scotland’s Duhan van der Merwe, the latter a real turning point for Ireland at Murrayfield.
Crucial both in attack and defense, you can see why Farrell has so much confidence in him.
Beyond Ireland, the most memorable moment of the league for me was Damian Penaud’s try that took France to 50 points against England. I’m not sure we’ll ever see something like this game again and it showed me that France are back and serious.
It is important for Northern Hemisphere rugby that Ireland and France fly high as the World Cup approaches.
As for the biggest disappointment, I should go with Italy who cannot capitalize on their first form. They showed promise against France and Ireland but when things went down they failed to make a statement against Scotland and Wales and didn’t play the kind of rugby that we know they are capable of producing.
Ireland have now won three Grand Slams in the past 14 years, but this year was the most emphatic and impressive. The 2009 Grand Slam was a special moment because we hadn’t done it for 61 years. In 2018 the team was great but you remember Sexton took them out of a hole with the drop-goal in Paris.
Sexton was so influential that year whereas this time around they just seem to tick all the boxes and the whole team seems to be operating on an entirely different level. Some may suggest that Ireland peaked too soon, but I’m not sure.
What I am sure of is that we are getting close to calling this team the greatest Irish rugby team of all time.
Winning the Grand Slam was important, but beating the All Blacks in a Test series in New Zealand remains this team’s greatest achievement, while the importance of beating South Africa and Australia in the fall should not be ignored.
There is, of course, a way to end the ‘greatest of all time’ debate and that chance will come to France later this year.
With World Cup draw madness putting the top five teams on the same side of the draw, it will take a monumental push for Ireland to lift the Webb Ellis Cup.
Scotland and South Africa will be formidable pool opponents and even if they overcome them, France or New Zealand could stand in the way of a first-ever semi-final appearance.
But Andy Farrell and his coaching staff have built a team that is rarely fazed and has achieved everything it set out to achieve over the past year.
I always felt like the Six Nations was an important stop on this trip to Ireland. But after passing the five-game test with flying colors, they move on to a tournament that will truly determine this team’s legacy.
Tommy Bowe was talking to BBC Sport NI’s Matt Gault