Ireland aim to fulfil grand ambition at Twickenham

At around a quarter to five this St Patrick's Day afternoon, Ireland's players will climb a podium in the middle of England's home pitch at Twickenham and receive their Six Nations winners' medals in shirt-number order, with the captain Rory Best held back to be presented with the Championship trophy.

Ireland skipper Rory Best during the captain's run at Twickenham. Picture: PA
Ireland skipper Rory Best during the captain's run at Twickenham. Picture: PA

It will be one Ireland hooker handing over to another, and not even the softest of borders in sight, as Pat Whelan,
the chairman of the Six Nations, and a veteran of the Garryowen club and Munster, gives the silver cup to Best of Ulster, born in Craigavon and today winning his 111th cap. This much we know, as the title of champions is Ireland’s already. The big question is whether they can add the Grand Slam.

“There is a lot of nervous energy for us,” Best said yesterday after he led Ireland’s final pre-match run at Twickenham, “because it is a big game and everyone is aware of the significance for Irish rugby. There is that consolation prize of the championship but we want to push on and achieve something special.”

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Best knows what he is talking about as he was the replacement hooker for Jerry Flannery when Ireland won their second and most recent Grand Slam, in Wales in 2009. Ronan O’Gara, the stand-off from Cork Constitution and Munster, kicked the drop goal in Cardiff that clinched the clean sweep, and it had been a terribly long wait between Guinnesses since Jack Daly, a prop of Cork Constitution and Munster, scored Ireland’s Slam-clinching try against the Welsh in Belfast in 1948.

“The big memories from ’09 were how the key players conducted themselves with confidence,” said Best yesterday, “and maybe it is a little bit the same this time. But, for me, it feels different because there is more pressure as captain. To be here starting this time you know what your role will be and you can prepare a plan. Quarter to three is not the time to go into your shell.”

The Grand Slam is much praised and prized for its rarity. England have brought it off just once since 2003 so, in that sense, the shamrock can edge ahead of the red rose today. And Best would join the 2009 captain Brian O’Driscoll and the 21-year-old hooker-skipper of 1948, Karl Mullen, among the immortals.

When the current Championship kicked off, it was a few days after Best visited Belfast Crown Court in a private capacity as a character witness for Ulster and Ireland team-mates involved in a rape trial; a disconcerting backdrop, some might say. On the field in Paris on 3 February, O’Gara’s brilliant stand-off successor Johnny Sexton showed incredible skill and nerve to kick Ireland’s winning points against France in the last minute.

Eddie O’Sullivan, the former Ireland coach, is one of many to have tried and failed to win an Irish Slam – his team were beaten 42-6 by Martin Johnson’s England in a winner-takes-all contest in Dublin in 2003 – and O’Sullivan said yesterday: “Grand Slam opportunities are like hen’s teeth and this one would be huge for Ireland for many reasons; one of them because they’d have won in Paris and at Twickenham.

“Consider as well Ireland have had injury problems right throughout the Championship. They have been through four outside centres [Robbie Henshaw, Jordan Larmour, Chris Farrell and Garry Ringrose] and still managed to keep the show on the road.”

Other Ireland teams fell at the final hurdle in Wales in 1926, 1951 and 1969, and in France in 1982. As O’Sullivan put it: “If Ireland lose, it’s the Championship – but without the Grand Slam it doesn’t taste the same, that’s for sure.”