Nostalgia swept over me like a wave, catching me unawares as I surveyed the pitch from my lofty perch, looking on as the Aviva Stadium was turned into a green-hued Mardi Gras venue, tunes blaring, players and supporters dancing and singing. It was a moment to savour – a Grand Slam in Dublin.
As the dust settled on an exhilarating weekend for the Ireland and Ireland under-20 squads, I was asked the same question, phrased differently but the kernel of the inquiry was consistent. Did I miss playing rugby and what would I have given to be out on that pitch on Saturday night?
My answer hasn’t changed one iota since I retired, I do not miss playing rugby. It doesn’t mean, though, that I am devoid of sentiment when it comes to a sport that I loved for a long time. Representing my country was a privilege, so too playing for Leinster, and I am proud to have been a small part of some great days.
For a moment you return to the way that you enjoyed the sport as a child; that happiness and contentment that winning brings. It is fleeting but it is precious, sequestered from prying eyes
I was struck by several things that Andy Farrell instigated in the build-up to the England match, and thought it a lovely touch by the Irish management to properly embrace the families and let them share some of the experiences.
Opening the captain’s run to children, wives, partners and families of the players would have lightened the mood at a time when it can get a little overwhelming if all that you are left to think about is the upcoming match.
Everyone that had been involved in the national senior squad during the championship was invited to the match and part of the post-match celebrations. Watching the lap of honour my mind drifted to my own career, the 2009 Grand Slam and other great days in blue and green jerseys.
Nearly all the big wins in which I was involved took place away from home, beating England at Twickenham in 2004, the Grand Slam win in Cardiff (2009) and in the same year Leinster’s first Heineken Cup triumph in Edinburgh. More European victories over Northampton Saints in the Welsh capital (2011) and against Ulster at Twickenham in 2012.
Winning a league title on home soil doesn’t really balance the books. Regardless of where you are once you have won, the changing room after the match is a very special place. That holds true for 19 years ago in Twickenham, as it did for last Saturday in the Aviva.
Anyone that is present in that room, before the opposition come in to swap jerseys or the media/sponsor work commences, will attest how special it is. Once the adrenaline rush, the raw emotion that bubbles up at the final whistle, has subsided and you are in the sanctuary of the dressingroom, there is an intimacy in sharing that time.
Trying to be successful in the early part of that season took a savage mental and physical toll from which the players never recovered
You don’t wear that veneer that you have out on a pitch. I can still picture Shane Horgan’s expression after our victory over Leicester Tigers in that Edinburgh final. For a moment you return to the way that you enjoyed the sport as a child; that happiness and contentment that winning brings. It is fleeting but it is precious, sequestered from prying eyes.
You exchange a laugh, a smile, a drink with people whom you have shared a burden and toiled with, who know exactly how you’re feeling, how hard you’ve worked because they have felt the same, experienced the same, and been there through the good and bad.
Once the door opens to the outside world you can’t recapture that time or put the toothpaste back in the tube to borrow an analogy from a former coach of mine. The celebrations continue but are slightly different, slightly less enthusiastic until the moment arrives framed individually in the question, what next? It’s a short-term conundrum that has a different resonance depending on where you are in your career.
Waking up on the Monday morning after our Grand Slam in Cardiff (2009), I asked myself that exact question, what’s next? It was my 11th professional season and my first trophy. My decision was I wanted to win more.
I had spent enough time on the side of pitches, and on the bench so I asked Leinster head coach Michael Cheika to play; and I did eight days later against Ulster. For me it was about getting back to work and that will be replicated in the attitudes of many of the latest Grand Slam champions.
Ireland have been here before, 2019, to be precise where the national side was ranked number one in the world. The former All Blacks coach Steve Hansen reminded everyone in a recent interview how that panned out for Ireland, basically suggesting that we choked.
England can rightly feel they would have been in with a shot of the upset had they had full numbers on the field
Trying to be successful in the early part of that season took a savage mental and physical toll from which the players never recovered. They were not allowed to decompress, and we know how that story concluded.
There isn’t an exact metric for gauging emotional wellbeing or how long it takes to recover from stress, but physically a player can be hitting their numbers within days. On a case-by-case basis how Ireland and the provinces manage all the players in the next two months will have a far bigger impact on the World Cup than anything else.
Chasing success in the provinces in the United Rugby Championship (URC) and the Heineken Champions Cup demands a bigger physical and emotional tariff the longer that you go in the tournaments. You need a bit of luck along the way and from time to time to get the bounce of the ball or avoid any self-inflicted disciplinary wounds.
On that note, I’d like to add my tuppence worth to the red card that England fullback Freddie Steward received and the impact that it had on the match. There has been unanimity from ex-players across the water complaining that the player’s dismissal was the reason that England lost the match and that it ruined the spectacle.
The “game’s gone soft”, “rugby incident” bores were out in force too. As I sit on my ivory tower, I don’t believe it ruined the spectacle as England scored two tries and only fell away in the final 10-15 minutes. England can rightly feel they would have been in with a shot of the upset had they had full numbers on the field.
It is a tough pill to swallow, as Steward was not trying to injure Hugo Keenan. He switched off and entered a contact recklessly, but more likely he thought he could get away with a nudge or bump on his opposite number.
The Irish players showed they are not robots, that the occasion got to them, yet they still found a way to win
It is not a harsh red card, it is a dumb red card and a reflection on the way England approached the game. They came to physically impose themselves on Ireland, and they did it at every opportunity. Ellis Genge and Maro Itoje were desperate to get a bead on Johnny Sexton, Jack Willis nearly succeeded, and Alex Dombrandt eventually hit the Irish outhalf needlessly in a high off-the-ball shot.
For the most part, England’s defence and tackling was impressive considering their frailties last week in the defeat to France. Steve Borthwick’s side came to disrupt, and to their credit they managed it and it really stressed Ireland.
Ireland were left to wrangle a largely disjointed performance, final passes were not sticking, the bounce of the ball not even close to coming our way, and eventually we realised that we had to adapt how they were playing.
England, where possible, didn’t put anyone into defensive rucks, allowing them a numerical advantage in open play and they could get a super-quick line speed.
It spooked Ireland, and it wasn’t until Jamison Gibson-Park explored the short-side off fast, ball deep in the second half that Ireland exposed faultlines in the England defence. Robbie Henshaw, Dan Sheehan and Rob Herring were the try-scoring beneficiaries.
England displayed a tactical template that can be used to upset Ireland but from that Farrell and his coaches are secure in the knowledge that they can fix the malfunctions that were more to do with composure than the playbook.
It was a valuable learning experience to pack in the suitcase for France later in the year
There were several instances in the game where Ireland failed to convert on good approach work and it was the first time in the last 10 months that they lacked a little composure. In my opinion this is a great thing. The Irish players showed they are not robots, that the occasion got to them, yet they still found a way to win.
It was a valuable learning experience to pack in the suitcase for France later in the year. Gary Keegan and Farrell will be asking everyone to remember the feeling, the build-up, the head space and bottle it for the next time the weight of expectation and pressure arrives.
Everything is easy when nothing is on the line, however when it is, pressure does funny things, expectations muddy the water and emotions run hot and cold. Ireland have had a great rehearsal for the next time it counts, and who knows it might be crucial to an even bigger celebration to come.