A Grand Slam on the line, a team legitimately regarded as the best in the world and the potential winner of the Rugby World Cup later this year. It sounds familiar.
Go back 20 years and that’s how it played out at the old Lansdowne Road when Ireland faced England. The game is best remembered on this side of the Irish Sea for then President Mary McAleese infamously being forced to walk on grass because England captain Martin Johnson refused to move his team to the other side of the red carpet. Across the water, it’s remembered for the 42-6 demolition for England to win the Grand Slam before going on to win the World Cup.
The tables are turned now as Ireland are the favourites to seal a third Grand Slam in 14 years, and the first on home soil in the modern era of the Six Nations championship. The historic 1948 title, under the old Five Nations, was secured at Ravenhill in Belfast. Beating “the Auld Enemy” in Dublin on St Patrick’s weekend to win a Grand Slam – it wouldn’t get much better than that.
However, a lot can happen in the 80 minutes this afternoon in the Aviva Stadium. Injuries have weakened Andy Farrell’s squad, and the game will give a signal of Ireland’s capacity to challenge for the World Cup in France in September and October. To borrow George Hamilton’s celebrated phrase from Italia ’90: “The nation holds its breath.”
Continuity across the previous two Grand Slam campaigns of 2009 and 2018 is provided by Johnny Sexton and Cian Healy. The pair began their Ireland careers in 2008 as the uncapped players in the Six Nations squad, having come through the Ireland Schools, Under-20s and Leinster sides. Given the levels of attrition in the game, their staying power is remarkable.
The ultimate talisman, Sexton is the one player in the team who is irreplaceable. He ranks in the pantheon of Irish sporting greats; his winning mentality dictates the tone of any team he plays in. Healy’s value to the squad was shown in the win against Scotland, in which he saved the day with his versatility.
The golden era of Irish rugby continues to produce players and results unthinkable in previous generations when glory was intermittent. Victory is now almost expected, but it would be wrong to be complacent when facing the wounded giant that is England.
Ireland enter the game having confirmed their status as the number one team in the world. England will want to spoil the party and will relish the chance to burst the Irish bubble. They won’t be rolling out any red carpet to crown the champions elect. Ireland are out of the comfort zone – we’re no longer the plucky underdogs.