‘It’s like living in a dream,’ says Jonathan Sexton as nation celebrates Six Nations victory on St Patrick’s weekend
On the weekend of the wearing of the green, it has seldom been worn better by anyone.
A rugby team that has been breaking the mould in Irish sport for most of a year broke another one by doing what they were expected to do and living up to the pressure that had been weighed on their shoulders long before the Six Nations championship began.
They went out and delivered on that expectation without crumpling under the anvil of its demands. Wales, France and Scotland were duly dispatched and tonight they crossed the finishing line with a furlong to spare, vanquishing a gallant England.
On a day of power and glory, they won their country’s fourth Grand Slam. They were expected to win it; they struggled at times but they took the great prize of northern hemisphere rugby.
It is an achievement that will be celebrated not just in the leafy environs of Irish rugby’s traditional manor, but across a nation that has embraced the sport in the 21st century like never before.
An ever-expanding population of admirers has come to recognise the conveyor belt of brilliant players that fills the green jersey in this era of unprecedented success, and to appreciate them as outstanding role models too.
First among these contemporary greats is the captain, the elder statesman, the man for all seasons. Jonathan Sexton hobbled off the pitch with six minutes left to play, a thunderous wave of applause greeting him as he took the final steps of a fabled Six Nations career.
The 37-year-old had lasted long enough to claim the tournament’s all-time points record with this swansong, eclipsing his old mucker Ronan O’Gara’s statistical landmark with a few more swings of his boot.
Naturally, it was only a footnote in his own priorities: the prize was the thing.
Ireland had managed a miserly one Grand Slam in the entire 20th century. This makes it three in 14 years of this century. And not just that, but the first one ever to be claimed in Lansdowne Road.
Shortly after the final whistle, the leader was summoned for a TV interview. “Couldn’t make it up,” beamed Sexton in the delirium of a packed Aviva Stadium, struggling to be heard as The Fields of Athenry reverberated around the arena. “Honestly, I couldn’t make it up,” said the famously demanding perfectionist, sounding at last like a man at peace with himself and the world.
“It’s like living in a dream, I’m actually worried I’m going to wake up in the morning,” he laughed, as if it were a mirage that would disappear with the dawn.
In all likelihood, he gave it a fair shot last night to greet the dawn, and if at his venerable age he didn’t quite make it, there was doubtless a fair few of the younger brigade that did.
“Bloody hell, what a team, what a team,” he marvelled about his comrades in green. “What a group of coaches, [they] prepared us so well. We did nothing that they told us,” he added with a wry smile. “We did the exact opposite, we made things hard for ourselves, but to come here and get a win on Patrick’s weekend, it’s unbelievable. What a day.”
In the time-honoured fashion of Irish favourites across all sports who find the pressure of expectation too much to handle, it might be said that this Ireland team also made hard work of the final step to glory. But it would be more accurate to say that it was their opponents who made it hard work for them.
England fetched up in Dublin having suffered a historical humiliation at the hands of France the previous weekend. And not for the first time in our mutual history, England’s difficulty was supposed to be Ireland’s opportunity. We were supposed to steamroll them back to old Blighty.
But this was a group of players in white who turned up to fight for their dignity. And that was a more profound source of motivation than turning up to fight for silverware — as Ireland had to do.
England were not about to facilitate a coronation. They made it very, very awkward for the home side. They turned the game into a suffocating, attritional war of muscle and nerve. And even when they were reduced to 14 men for the entire second half, they still made it a quarrelsome struggled steeped in tension and error.
It wasn’t until Robbie Henshaw slid over after an hour that the watching Irish audience at home and abroad could finally loosen the knot on the necktie and think about taking the champagne out of the ice bucket. Until then it had been flat beer, threatening to turn to bitter ale.
But Ireland have played like champions elect all spring. They had shown their mettle, their bottle and their class as required. If they couldn’t sign off with a flourish this weekend, they’re not the type to play with that kind of vanity anyway. They do what they have to do, be it hard or be it easy.
They carried a ton of pressure into the final game, they took England’s best shots and they stayed the course.