Irish cast aside weight of history to find escape in Grand Slam success

Josh van der Flier of Ireland with his father Dirk, grandfather George Strong and mother Olly after the Six Nations win over England at the Aviva Stadium. Photo: Harry Murphy/Sportsfile

David Kelly

“No ceiling bearin’ down on me. Save the starry sky above”

The history boys are singing The Waterboys. Some sense of an ending.

And still, as the bus carrying a heaving mass of happiness exits the bowels of this old ground, its giddy passengers bellowing Mike Scott’s plaintive paean to freedom, there is an even stronger feeling that this is the beginning of a new story.

“This is not the end,” Jonathan Sexton tells his team when they return to their inner sanctum, a hush replacing the whoops and hollers of the celebrations. “There’s plenty more in us.”

But for now, after a day when it seemed to many they were suffocating from momentous anticipation, they could, for a few hours at least, cast aside the weight of history and the burdens of future pledges.

The job these men do rarely allows such untrammelled escape; they may enjoy privileged lives but they are only earned through a devotion to hard work, driven by endless, repetitive routines and strictures.

“Now it’s just about enjoying the moment,” Ryan Baird tells us. “I’ve never won a Grand Slam before, so I’m not going to think about anything further than the next 10 minutes.”

The release of all the day’s stress seemed as profound as the minor terrors that caused it.

Andy Farrell spoke of the squad’s sense of duty; his captain of how he and his players speak about seeing clearly what they are doing, rather than merely taking a guess.

“I think we guessed too many times,” he mutters.

Josh van der Flier, winning his 50th cap, was not alone in trying to rein in his fraught focus.

“I was trying not to enjoy it but there was a few times I was hearing the Fields of Athenry and the crowd were going mad, it was pretty special.

“There were some special moments and I enjoyed them for a split-second and then you just switch back into it and try to get the job done.” Sexton reminded us that as a child he not only dreamed of playing for Ireland, but captaining them too.

It is only human for the reverie of the child to spook the man as he approaches a pinnacle. Baird bumped into a friend during the week and reminded him of his schoolboy fantasy.

“I don’t remember this, but he said I was always saying I would be here, and to think one day you could be here with this bunch of lads, it’s very special, you know?

“And at times, there were images popping in my head of lifting the trophy. But I just had to keep coming back to the present.”

For only the present could help them claim their history and, now, chart their future.

“It’s tough,” related Jimmy O’Brien. “You go through the nerves stage, knowing that it passes quickly and you just concentrate, stay in the moment, not overthink.”

Ireland were always going to be too good to lose this match but the struggle to win it compelled them to dig deep within their depthless reservoirs once again; as they have done for much of the past 18 months, they found their way home.

A week ago, they had laughed at half-time during the Murrayfield mayhem; Aviva angst was far more testing.

“We were bricking it,” admits Jack Conan.

“We weren’t ourselves in the first-half,” continues Rob Herring. “So stay calm and get back to what we do well. It probably took us about ten minutes of the second-half but we got there eventually!”

The siege of their emotions was finally lifted just beyond the hour mark, when Sexton’s cross-field kick and Mack Hansen’s chase, prompted the field position which created the stunning move for Robbie Henshaw’s try.

At once, it seemed, they had removed the Sword of Damocles. Suddenly, the freedom of expression returned to this eloquent side.

They began to play and become their truest sporting selves.

Even their captain somehow stopped time; the referee halting the match clock to allow the wounded veteran to retreat from the battlefield, hobbling with his shield, as 51,000 people rose to their feet in acclaim.

“It’s hard to put into words,” says Herring, the first winners’ medal of his life dangling around his broad shoulders, and his daughter, Milly, staring in wonderment amidst the blinding light and noise.

“The whole week, the build-up. We really did feel how special this week was going to be.

“The energy in Dublin, the way into the stadium, the anthems, even when things weren’t going right, the crowds were there to pick us up. I have never experienced anything like this to be honest.”

Ross Byrne never thought he might wear green again; now he is a champion.

Their flag planted upon this summit of ambition, but do we really know if this is really the peak?

“We need to keep our feet on the ground and keep building,” Sexton warns.

Not the end of anything, then, but the beginning of everything.