Winning a Grand Slam on home soil would be a fitting finale for this Ireland team who proved their mettle in spades at Murrayfield
It’s not that long ago when spoiling England’s season was the height of excitement for Irish rugby.
On Saturday, the journey from party poopers to the world’s best team will be complete if they can perform to their best against the old enemy who have never looked less impressive.
In the aftermath of yesterday’s ridiculous win over Scotland at Murrayfield, Johnny Sexton and Andy Farrell said all the right things about the danger of a side on the rebound from their record defeat to France, intent on ruining Ireland’s big day.
Not since 2003 have they had a chance to win a Grand Slam on home soil, something they’ve only managed once, in 1948 when Jack Kyle and his team made history at Ravenhill.
The old and new grounds at Lansdowne Road have seen almost everything rugby has to offer, but this would be a historic first.
All the evidence points to them finishing the job, but finals rugby is a curious beast. Sexton acknowledged it after the game yesterday and he’ll ensure the players are ready for what’s coming.
It’s fan and media hype, the weight of expectation; ticket requests and all that goes with it.
For the captain, it’s the prospect of his final Six Nations game, a chance to win a second Grand Slam and to do it in style in front of his friends, families and many admirers.
Finals haven’t always gone his or the Leinster contingent’s way in recent years, but that experience can stand to them now as they park the madness of Murrayfield and look towards England.
Given the way they’ve approached this tournament with their ‘no-excuses’ mentality, their embrace of adversity as a friend and the work they’ve done to mentally steel themselves for everything and anything going wrong; they appear to be bulletproof.
“We played a final in New Zealand, we played a final last year in terms of trying to win a Triple Crown against Scotland, we’ve created finals for ourselves over the last number of years so it will be no different,” Sexton said.
“We are used to playing in them. Performance is key, getting it out there and playing really good is the biggest challenge. We showed today and throughout the last year that we can perform when the pressure comes on.” he added.
“It’s going to be a tough game and we just need to get everyone back fresh, we won’t train too much this week, I think, and get the boys back fresh for Saturday.”
There is much to admire about this team. Their resolve is arguably the most impressive element of it all, but equally their capacity to play themselves out of trouble is remarkable.
Their trust in the plan is absolute, their commitment to attacking their way to victory is unbreakable.
Yesterday, Scotland played very well. They themselves were chasing history, looking to end their three-decade-plus wait for a Triple Crown and to mark Stuart Hogg’s 100th cap with a win.
They made life very difficult for Farrell’s men; their attack pulled and probed and looked like it might just break the visitors who hung in for dear life.
When they needed to, they made big defensive plays.
Sexton, James Lowe, Hugo Keenan and Josh van der Flier made huge defensive plays, Peter O’Mahony was his brilliant best as his fellow forwards fell by the wayside.
To keep this Scottish team to one try was stunning given all of the ball they had, while they were frustrated by their own inaccuracy and some fairly generous refereeing to the home side from ref Luke Pearce who seemed determined not to issue a yellow card despite the hosts’ cynicism.
Farrell said the players were resigned to laughter such was the chaos at half-time.
Rónan Kelleher tried to play on with one arm before conceding defeat, but with Cian Healy scrummaging at hooker brilliantly and Josh van der Flier nailing five lineouts out of eight, they didn’t miss a beat.
On came Jamison Gibson-Park and Ireland began to flow.
When they do, they’re magnificent to behold; stretching the Scots to within an inch of their lives with their tight shapes and multiple options.
Farrell spoke before the tournament about watching Manchester City breaking Leeds in a league game this season. Well, his team broke Scotland through their relentless attacking and incredible intensity.
Hogg’s 100th cap began with some touching scenes with his family before kick-off, but by the time he was withdrawn he looked completely deflated.
Duhan van der Merwe, just a month ago the unstoppable force of Twickenham, was brushed aside by Jack Conan to score; Superman turned out to be just another speed-bump on the road to a Slam.
The mental scars will linger into the World Cup for this Scottish team, but the big show in France can wait for the Irish side who know how special next Saturday can be.
Can England do what Ireland did at the same venue in 2001 and 2011 by spoiling the party?
Certainly, you’d fear that they can’t be as bad as they were against France and their pride will demand some form of response.
Still, their limited approach under Borthwick and the number of players who are a shadow of their former selves suggests the gulf in class is too great.
Ireland will be down bodies, even with Farrell offering some hope that Caelan Doris and Dan Sheehan can recover in time.
The blow of Garry Ringrose’s absence will be cushioned by Robbie Henshaw’s return, while the second-row injury crisis means that Ryan Baird will start with Kieran Treadwell on the bench.
Rob Herring has never let Ireland down and he’ll be an able deputy for Sheehan.
Farrell deserves enormous credit for building this team into such a resilient unit, while the players have earned this shot at history.
Even with such a toll, they are good enough to recover and finish the job at home on what could be the greatest day of them all at Lansdowne Road.