The kick was from the sideline, tough as they come. Dan Sheehan’s second try had just put Ireland 22-7 ahead with 12 minutes to go and the Aviva was ablaze. Here, after everything, was permission for the party to start. Almost nobody was paying Sexton any attention, as though it didn’t matter if he kicked the conversion or started flicking the ball up and catching it on his neck.
But Sexton knew. He gave the kick the same attention as every one he’s had in his 13 years playing in the Six Nations. And when it went through the posts, he flung both hands in the air and ran back to his spot elated. His last ever kick in the tournament put three scores between the sides. He knew that was the Grand Slam.
And with it, everyone breathed out. The scoreline tells a fable here. This wasn’t the stroll a bonus-point win suggests. Maybe the sweetest thing about it was that Ireland walked off at the end knowing they’d earned every bit of it. After all the expectations, after everything, they had to do with winning ugly.
[ Ireland secure historic fourth Grand Slam to give Johnny Sexton the perfect Six Nations sign off ]
“We talked about this day eight weeks ago,” Sexton said afterwards. “We set out to win the Grand Slam and this is it. We didn’t quite nail it today but we did enough.”
Truth is, we’re not used to this stuff. All this confidence and free-wheeling favouritism, we’re not made for it. We’ll have a go at it but we won’t be entirely comfortable. All week, the whole country had played at being top dogs, convinced that the Grand Slam was only a matter of getting on the bus. In the history of Irish sport, this was probably unique.
Think about it. When had there ever been an all-or-nothing Irish sporting occasion when defeat was so far out of the question? Has it happened since Arkle? Not a game against a minnow (no laughing down the back, please) and not a no-consequence friendly. But against England, for the Grand Slam, everything on the line. And yet you’d have had more chance finding a teetotaller in Temple Bar this weekend than somebody who imagined Ireland would lose here.
Yet there we were, half an hour in, and not only was there no sign of a cakewalk but Ireland were 6-3 behind. And not just behind but deservedly so. After spending six weeks confusing the opposition with tip passes and reverses and intricate running lines, now they were mainly confusing themselves. Johnny Sexton dropped a pass, Tadhg Furlong knocked on. Even Hugo Keenan, normally so immaculate, produced a shank worthy of a 24-handicapper to give England a lineout in the Ireland 22.
Ireland were, collectively and individually, having a good old-fashioned shocker. A better team than England would surely have spoiled the party. Steve Borthwick’s side did their best, all grizzled and dogged, cheering every penalty award like it was a try. Owen Farrell kicked his points and as long as Ireland were toiling at the other end, it left them in with a chance.
They kept at it too. The 10 minutes before the break should have broken the visitors. First Sheehan skipped onto Josh van Der Flier’s reverse pass off a lineout to score the first Irish try. Soon after, Freddie Steward walked on a red card after catching Keenan high and probably a touch unluckily. That should have been that, really. Four points down, a man down, away from home – England should have been goosed.
[ How the Irish players rated in famous Grand Slam win ]
But they weren’t. At least not for a while. We all presumed that the sending off meant Ireland would go from scrabbling around in the dark to fumbling upon the light switch but that wasn’t how it was. England spent the third quarter on top, pushing Ireland back, slowing everything down, stitching a Farrell penalty to bring the score back to 10-9.
This wasn’t in the script. Nobody said anything about only being a point up with 20 minutes to go. Nobody, anywhere, not once all week, was sticking their neck out and warning everyone to be careful about their assumptions. Ireland were stuck. What now?
Enter Jamison and Johnny. First Gibson-Park got Ireland up the pitch with a breakaway and a chip and chase. Soon after, Sexton launched a cross-kick into the space where Steward would have been – the red card finally having its say – and in the bounce-around chaos that followed, Ireland got a five-metre scrum. Put-in, recycle, switch move. Bundee Aki to Robbie Henshaw, breathing space at last.
They’d put years on you. Would you have it any other way?