The nature of Ryan Baird’s superb display in the victory over England symbolised, or perhaps more accurately highlighted, an essential component of Ireland’s Grand Slam success that transcended the whiteboard diagrams, the disparate game plans for the five matches and instead alighted on the psychology of human performance.
Andy Farrell created a culture within the squad environment that enabled and encouraged the individual to flourish within the team dynamic, harnessing diverse personalities in support of a common goal. He put trust in a wide group of players and that faith was repaid handsomely.
The foundation for Ireland’s Six Nations triumph was based on the depth of the squad as much as headline contributions from captain Johnny Sexton and frontline acolytes Hugo Keenan, Mack Hansen, James Lowe, Garry Ringrose, Andrew Porter, Dan Sheehan, James Ryan, Josh van der Flier, Peter O’Mahony and Caelan Doris.
Farrell was implacable in his belief pre-tournament that Ireland would not be destabilised by a lengthy injury list. Not everyone shared his optimism, but he was patient and consistent in explaining to those willing to listen that there was opportunity in misfortune.
It didn’t matter one iota what the public or media thought as long as Farrell, his coaching team, and the players subscribed to the philosophy. In the absence of standout players, world-class talents like Robbie Henshaw, Jamison-Gibson Park and Tadhg Furlong, others stepped in and stepped up: there were few visible seams in performance terms.
Examples were legion. Finlay Bealham not only proved an immovable pillar in the scrum across the first three matches before injury unfortunately ended his tournament but showcased more wide-ranging skills, the highest profile his beautifully disguised and delivered pass, the pivotal moment in Hugo Keenan’s try against France.
The Connacht man worked hard for the team and when he went down just before half-time in the Italian match, Tom O’Toole ensured that there was no slackening in input or outcome. The Ulster prop had served notice in the game against France, his powerful carrying breaching the opposing defence on several occasions.
In Rome he won a couple of scrum penalties, another on his arrival into the fray at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday evening. Stuart McCloskey, entrusted with the 12 jersey from November, filled it for the first three matches in the Six Nations. Bundee Aki wrestled it away by dint of performance, as it should be.
Farrell invested in people. Jack Conan’s form in the first three matches looked a little out of kilter when measured against his optimum level but the Irish coach was steadfast in his support and was repaid in full with the Leinster forward’s high-calibre impact in the victories over Scotland and England.
Best of luck to student Ryan Baird & the @IrishRugby team playing England in @SixNationsRugby Championship final today.— Trinity College Dublin (@tcddublin) March 18, 2023
Ireland takes on England for #SixNations title, #TripleCrown & #GrandSlam 🏈🇮🇪🍀 KO 5pm! #IrishRugby #Rugby #TeamTrinity #stpatricksday #shouldertoshoulder pic.twitter.com/8Y9I87ADVS
Conan’s awareness and hands for Sheehan’s second try on Saturday was a delight, the player back to his ebullient best. Cian Healy, Rob Herring and Conor Murray all had important roles that added value.
Tadhg Beirne’s misfortune against France was a conduit for Iain Henderson to come back into the team and when the luckless Ulster lock suffered a broken arm against Scotland, Ryan Baird was entrusted with just his second start in the Grand Slam game against England.
Farrell, nonplussed in losing two Lions secondrows, insisted that he had every faith in Baird and that support was vindicated as the 23-year-old would have been a viable option for the man-of-the-match award. Baird has always been a brilliant athlete but to succeed in the upper echelon of Test match rugby he was given a list of additional requirements.
Ireland’s head coach explained: “You’ve had me on record over the last few weeks about how much he’s [Baird] matured, getting across his detail. I thought he was immense in that second half, some of the stuff you’ve seen there is him figuring out how to put his stamp on the game.
“The stuff in the breakdown and his efforts as far as his kick-chase is the stuff that [might go] unseen [by some], but it doesn’t go unseen by us because it’s [a] constant week in, week out in training. He’s matured massively over these eight weeks; he’ll be on to bigger and better things, I’m sure.”
The coach’s endorsement was merited. Baird’s tackle technique — as Freddie Steward, Maro Itoje, Alex Dombrandt, Ellis Genge and Man Tuilagi discovered — left them on the turf while his speed in chasing re-starts and getting off the line as an occasional shooter in defence made life very uncomfortable for the visitors.
Baird invariably made a couple of metres in contact through natty footwork, including one for the highlights reel when he left Itoje and Owen Farrell floundering as he danced away from tackles.
His lineout work was largely assured — he took the catch in the build-up to Sheehan’s first try — while he twice won crucial penalty turnovers when England were pressing in attack, pilfering from Genge and Kyle Sinckler. The latter instant proved a precursor to Ireland’s second try.
He admitted: “I saw it, and thought, ‘this is what Tadhg Beirne would do’, so I just did what he’d. I’m not taking credit there; I just copied him.” That sentiment sums up how the players drive from within, inspire and chivvy one another to be better.
He continued: “It was talked about all week, how we deal with the big moments, but I never played in one of these big games, so for me to come out and try to deliver my best for the team was a real special challenge. First half I could have done better, but the second half I really felt I dug in.
“I was quite nervous, but everyone was nervous, but we focus so much on staying in the present and focusing on the next moment and that’s all I tried to do.”
That’s what Bealham did, that’s what O’Toole did, that’s what Baird did, took a green jersey and filled it impressively.