GRAND SLAM deciders are meant to be nervous affairs, where the nails get bitten right down to the core, yet this Saturday’s season finale against England at the Aviva Stadium feels different.
Nothing is being taken for granted. We have suffered too many tough days at the hands of England for that to occur, but there is a confidence all the same, one that has been earned.
Maybe it is because England are showing absolutely no signs of life right now, or maybe it is because we are finally starting to believe that this Irish team are genuine world beaters, but anything less than a comfortable victory over England on Saturday would be a major surprise.
England would appear to have no areas where they can get at Ireland. Gone are the days when you would fear being physically manhandled by a gigantic England pack; they are not the biggest bully in the school yard anymore.
The fact that we have the memories of the 2009 and 2018 Grand Slams in the bank also helps. There is no feeling of swimming against the tide of history here. We’ve been there and worn this t-shirt already.
Ireland were not wonderful against Scotland last weekend, but given the injury situation, where one-third of the team was lost to injury, they were never going to be, yet they still held Gregor Townsend’s side at arms-length, in a game that was built as Ireland’s toughest game of the championship.
Ireland do so much right that it is difficult to pinpoint the one or two areas that have been absolutely integral to their brilliant performances in the past 12 months, but their phenomenal defence deserves a special mention.
Ireland have played 15 Tests since the start of the 2022 Six Nations championship. If we remove last year’s first Test against New Zealand at Auckland, when Ireland shipped six tries in a 42-19 defeat, then Ireland’s defensive stats have been outrageous in this period.
Since then, the only time any nation has scored more than two tries against Andy Farrell’s side was when New Zealand scored three in the Test Series decider in Wellington, but they still were 10 points shy of Ireland in the famous 22-32 triumph.
Fiji and South Africa both managed two tries in the Autumn, while Italy got two first-half tries in Round 3 of this year’s championship. The message is that Ireland do not concede many tries, as other teams are scoring one at most, which must be extremely disconcerting for all opposition attacking coaches.
Another noteworthy feature is Ireland’s tendency to seriously strangle opposition in the second halves of games.
Scotland were nilled in the second half in Murrayfield last Sunday, which is the second year in a row that they failed to register a single point in the second half against Ireland.
Meanwhile, both France and Italy managed just three second-half points each in their respective ties in Dublin and Rome, while Wales can be proud of the seven they got in the second period in Round 1.
Last year, was a similar story in the Six Nations with Ireland shutting out both Scotland and Italy, while England managed six, Wales seven and France got 11 in the second half of their win in Paris.
Both Australia and South Africa managed 10 points between minutes 40 and 80 in November, and while New Zealand faired better in the summer Tests, they still couldn’t score enough to beat this Irish team over three Tests.
Coming off the back of a record 10-53 defeat to France at Twickenham last Saturday, it is hard to make an argument for Steve Borthwick’s side being able to buck this trend and to score heavily against Ireland.
There was a time when losing the likes of Garry Ringrose, Iain Henderson and Dan Sheehan would have been fatal to Ireland’s chances, but under Farrell this bunch seems to revel in adversity. When someone drops it is simply a case of next man up, and so far the next man has delivered, without exception.
Saturday should see a continuation of this trend, with a first-ever Irish Grand Slam being won on home soil.