As the chill of the March wind whips around Abbotstown, there’s plenty of time yet for the significance of the week to start building. In a dressing room to the side of the hangar that houses the IRFU’s High Performance Centre, the players on media duty file in and subject themselves to the rituals. There’s a Grand Slam on the line, no dancing around it. At the same time, it’s still only Tuesday.
Everyone knows the drill by now, of course. Method above outcome, same as always. “Get the work done early,” says Jamison Gibson-Park, “then start building to the weekend. We try to be as process-driven as we can and focus on the game rather than the occasion”.
They’re not machines, though. The emotional milkshake of Edinburgh on Sunday has only just about passed through their systems and already the Grand Slam game is no more than a few training sessions away. Gibson-Park and Tadhg Furlong played their first minutes in months, Cian Healy was a one-man frontrow. Scotland was not a normal game for any of them. A Grand Slam game isn’t overly normal either
📃 Andy Farrell gives his verdict on Sunday's win and looks ahead as @IrishRugby set their sights on a Grand Slam.#GuinnessSixNations | #SuperSaturday ⚡️— Guinness Six Nations (@SixNationsRugby) March 14, 2023
The job at hand is to find the normality in it. They’ve all been around the block, all had big days, and all found themselves in situations where they’ve had to convince themselves it’s just another match. It’s not always possible. “Tougher [this week] than any other week obviously,” Gibson-Park concedes. “But that’s a little bit of experience too.”
From here to Saturday, the drumbeat from the outside world will increase in sound and speed and rhythm. That’s the gig, no real way around it. England, Lansdowne Road, St Patrick’s weekend, fourth Grand Slam in history up for grabs. Why tiptoe around it?
“It’s all on the line,” says Furlong. “If you’re not excited about playing this weekend, why are you playing the sport? This is the reason that we slog away and work so hard all year. I think the group is very excited and everyone is different within that.
“Some people love going out there and showing how good they are. There’s other people that maybe find themselves that they get small on that attention or pressure. I think we’ve a very good balance in the squad where we can talk about that to get the most out of each other. It’s about enjoying the week. Enjoying the build-up, but also doing the work.”
The fact that this could be the only Grand Slam Ireland have ever won in Dublin adds a little zest to the cocktail too. Every player will know that the stands are filled out more than usual with people who have known them since they were nobody. Family, yes. But friends, coaches, people they encountered along the way. That all goes in the mix too.
“I think you take that apart in a few separate areas,” Healy says. “There’s playing for Ireland in Dublin with family and friends there that you’ll see after. That they’ll see you show them what it means. That’s got its own magnitude. I think that’s what drives everyone to reach a standard that we’re shooting for.
“At the end of that, if we’ve done all of that, we get a great prize and we get an unbelievable celebration. But for us to do justice to everything that we train for and to play in front of family and friends on our home patch on the weekend like this, that’s such a huge drive for us. We accept what the end of it is and you might have a Grand Slam and a championship, but you park that bit. It’s about performance and preparation for performance.”
Part of that preparation is emotional. It has to be. The last person any of them want to be on Saturday is somebody standing in the middle of the pitch finding the occasion has more heft to it than they expected. The country will get carried away over the coming days, nothing surer. And not just the rugby parts of it either. They won’t allow themselves to be taken by surprise on that score.
“It means a lot,” says Furlong. “I don’t really like overly talking about it here, because we’ve won nothing yet. That’s the dangers of complacency. We talk about it, we understand it and from the wider public as well. You just hope us wearing a green jersey and playing well, that people can be proud to be Irish and can associate with us.
“I understand that everyone is not rugby people and that’s fine if rugby is not your cup of tea. But I hope that they can see through our actions that it means something to us. It means something to play for Ireland, no matter if you’re within the island of Ireland or if you’re Irish living abroad or whatever. Just to see that it means something to us and, hopefully, they can be proud of us.”