Ireland can win their third Grand Slam in 14 years today to cap the most successful period in their history. For some it has always been this way, but Johnny Sexton and the elder statesmen know how far this team has come
One moment in a thousand drew a line from the bad old days to the good at Murrayfield last Sunday.
At a venue where Ireland routinely lost for decades, two children of that era dusted off the oldest trick in the Irish playbook to foot-rush their way up the field.
Peter O’Mahony got there first and hacked the ball up field, Johnny Sexton followed his lead and, while Kyle Steyn scrambled back it wasn’t long before Mack Hansen was scoring in the corner.
Up in the commentary box, Donal Lenihan gasped in recognition.
“Well, ’twas the old Irish foot-rush,” the former captain said. “We haven’t seen that in a couple of decades.”
There was a time, not that long ago, where the foot-rush was the jewel in Ireland’s attacking game-plan.
And, while it may seem like ancient history now, it’s a mark of how far they’ve come that both Sexton and O’Mahony are old enough to remember the dark days of yore.
Sexton was born in July 1985, O’Mahony in September 1989. The Dubliner began playing rugby at Bective Rangers, the Corkman at Cork Constitution.
Until he turned 13, Sexton never saw Ireland win more than two Five Nations games in a season. On three occasions, they went without a win and they never finished higher than fourth.
Today, the two men will look to win their second Grand Slam and their fourth Six Nations title together.
They are unbackable favourites to beat England at home to complete the country’s fourth clean sweep and their third in 14 years.
Over the course of their lifetimes, the state of Irish rugby has changed utterly.
The pivot point came in Lens, when Warren Gatland’s Ireland crashed out of the 1999 World Cup in ignominious fashion against Argentina.
The IRFU had been drawn kicking and screaming into professionalism and, while some elements of the game would not follow for many years there were some who grasped the nettle as they recognised a nadir when they saw it.
In his totemic book ‘From There to Here’, Brendan Fanning quotes one unnamed IRFU figure who summed things up.
“It was embarrassing,” he said.
“It came at the end of what was a very difficult transition for us from ’95. Our period from ’95 up to Lens was an absolute f*** up altogether. It was a sort of catharsis point where everybody said, ‘OK, we’ve reached it, now we can either play around with the professional game or get seriously into the professional game’.”
They chose the latter, but you couldn’t put it all down to the blazers on Lansdowne Road.
Munster’s embrace of the European Cup on the back of their clubs’ dominance of the All-Ireland League was another catalyst, while the emergence of a group of generational talents like Brian O’Driscoll, Ronan O’Gara and Paul O’Connell couldn’t have come at a better time.
Warren Gatland got the ball rolling in 2000, making nine changes to his team after shipping 50 points at Twickenham. They beat Scotland and Italy, before O’Driscoll scored his hat-trick in Paris to end a near three-decade wait for an away win over France.
By 2004, they’d won their first Triple Crown in 19 years and they did it again in 2006 and 2007 when they missed out on the title on points difference.
Eddie O’Sullivan had replaced Gatland, but when the 2007 World Cup went horribly wrong it cost him his job a year later.
Declan Kidney took over and led them to a first Grand Slam since 1948 in Cardiff and, when things went stale after a promising 2011 World Cup, Joe Schmidt took over and took things to another level; three Six Nations including a Grand Slam and historic first wins over New Zealand in Chicago and Dublin.
After a record World Cup quarter-final defeat at the hands of the All Blacks, Schmidt handed the reins to Andy Farrell who is now the master of all he surveys, sitting a-top a system that has become the envy of the world.
As they completed their Captain’s Run yesterday, the Blackrock College and Gonzaga teams were taking to the field at the RDS across Dublin 4. Born in 2005, they’ve never known anything but good times.
The schools play a crucial role as independent contributors to the system, particularly in Leinster where eight of today’s starting XV came through.
Tadhg Furlong is the sole representative of the club game, with Robbie Henshaw and O’Mahony representing the Connacht and Munster schools system.
The other four players come from New Zealand and Australia, with Bundee Aki, Jamison Gibson-Park and James Lowe recruited under the ‘special project’ programme that saw Ireland ruthlessly exploit the three-year residency law and Mack Hansen identified through the ‘IQ-rugby’ programme that identifies Irish-qualified players overseas.
The Academy structure and clever recruitment meant that when the ‘Golden Generation’ retired, there were ready-made replacements to come in and take their place.
Boys who grew up watching the team of the 2000s grew into men ready to replicate and surpass their achievements, unburdened by the baggage that was cast aside by the first adapters to professional rugby.
Roadblocks have been removed by Aussie performance director David Nucifora, the union has reduced the number of foreign players in the Irish system, while players have been encouraged to move provinces in search of game-time.
It hasn’t always worked and it certainly hasn’t been popular, but the depth across the game here and the clarity of purpose between the various stakeholders is part of the success Ireland is having.
Leinster get plenty of credit, but the Irish coaching ticket have harnessed all of the elements.
Assistant coach Mike Catt played against Ireland during the 1990s and into the 2000s, but the place is unrecognisable now.
“The whole set-up is very well-run, the schools system is exceptional. I watched some of the games the other day and it was really good,” he said.
“One of the biggest things for me is the humbleness of the players. It’s unbelievable. They are such hard workers, genuinely hard workers, all they want to do is please.
“Whether it’s uniting the nation or whether it’s their family or themselves or whatever, they work hard, are very diligent and it means a hell of a lot to them.
“Across the board, all the way through the provinces and the clubs, it’s just running particularly well and the players thrive on the back of it.”
It’s one thing seeing an Italian newspaper describe Ireland as the new All Blacks, another for Steve Borthwick, the head coach of the richest rugby nation, replete with the most adult male players, play the underdog card this week.
“There is an incredible pathway system to come through. You see the building blocks that went through prior to 2019,” Borthwick said.
“The team that developed and developed and developed. It built itself to the top of the world rankings, and that has continued post-2019.
“You see a provincial rugby set-up that keeps producing players. You see a Leinster team that is always competing at the top of Europe, and producing a huge contingent into the Ireland team.
“You look at the whole system of Irish rugby – and you see, right now, what a fantastic job everyone that is involved is doing.”
Rassie Erasmus described it as “precision farming”; things are working so well that Nucifora regularly fields requests from rival unions who want to spend time learning from what the IRFU do.
The system has been strong for some time, but Farrell deserves huge credit for his part in Ireland’s consistency.
When he took over from Schmidt, the former England dual-code international spoke about reaffirming the team’s identity.
Under the process-focused Kiwi, they’d risen up a number of levels but Farrell reckoned they’d lost some of the fighting spirit that made them great in the first place.
While Schmidt ruled by fear and that worked for a long time, Farrell wanted players to make mistakes and learn from them; creating a no-excuse mentality that has fed into one of the most thrilling and consistent teams there is.
While it’s true that he’s leaned heavily on Leinster players when it comes to selection, he’s also his own man and has developed players and the game-plan admirably after a difficult start.
“We genuinely do care about the game in Ireland,” Farrell said of his team this week. “What is it, probably the fourth biggest sport?
“We want to grow the game, we want to inspire a generation of people to enjoy the rugby and we want to people to be proud of what we’re doing and that’s genuine.
“We get a buzz from that connection and we feel it massively.
“We know what type of weekend it is for everyone involved, but the people coming to the game and the millions around the world . . . we understand our responsibility to make sure that we hopefully do them proud.”
He has often gone back to that day in 2007 when England came to Croke Park as a reference point for the harmonious relationship between the Irish public and its team.
“I think it said a lot about the Irish mentality etc,” he said of the 43-13 defeat for his England team.
“I knew the set-up before taking the job. The connections and the work which David Nucifora has done behind the scenes has been fantastic.
“I suppose the way that he’s done is the envy of world rugby now, isn’t it? The joined-up approach with coaches, unions and the provinces is unbelievably powerful.”
Lansdowne Road will be drunk on that power today as Ireland go into a game against England as unbackable favourites, with a Grand Slam on the line in what will be Sexton’s final Six Nations game.
For many who are scarred by the dark days, it’s still hard to comprehend but it’s very, very real.
Today may be Irish rugby’s finest hour, so far anyway, and it’s been a lifetime in the making.