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Anatomy of a Grand Slam: Behind the scenes in a momentous week for Irish rugby

For the Six Nations squad, the backroom team and the players’ families and friends, beating England to complete the first Grand Slam secured in Dublin was unforgettable

Over a year ago, Mandy Woollen had the idea that, somehow, she would like to buy six tickets for the 2023 Six Nations match between Ireland and England. Although appreciating it would be very difficult, she had a personal interest in doing so.

In the corresponding game in February 1973 her father, John Pullin, had famously led out the England team as captain at the old Lansdowne Road to a prolonged standing ovation.

At the peak of The Troubles, the previous year Scotland and Wales had declined to travel after Ireland had beaten France and England away. Sitting between my parents on the touchline seats, the 1973 game against England was this writer’s second game at Lansdowne Road.

“Stand up and applaud,” my dad told me as the English team ran onto the pitch and so a 4½ minute standing ovation began.


Cue, after Ireland’s 18-9 win, Pullin’s memorable remark at the post-match dinner: “We may not be any good but at least we turn up.”

Mandy Woollen was only four in 1973 but is acutely aware of that game’s historical significance and had often spoken about it with her dad, who sadly passed away two years ago.

“Dad always said if you don’t ask, you don’t get,” says Woollen, who resolved to email the IRFU looking to buy six tickets, but without getting a response.

“That could be down to me not pushing the right button!”

But a long-time friend of her father’s was Brian ‘Stack’ Stephens, who passed away five years ago, and whose son, John, plays for the Cornish Pirates.

Via a teammate at the Pirates from Ballymena, a letter conveying Woollen’s plea was handed to Willie John McBride. On foot of this, the IRFU contacted Woollen in March last year to tell her she would not be buying tickets, rather herself and five relatives would be the union’s guests at the game.

Back in 1973, both squads were based in the Shelbourne Hotel amid heavy security. Fifty years on, as is custom, the Irish squad spent last weekend at the same hotel.

Andy Farrell and the team management had tried to keep the week, and match-day, as normal as possible, incorporating just one full training session due to the six-day turnaround since the win over Scotland.

The squad had returned late on Sunday night, with team manager Mick Kearney staying on in Edinburgh overnight with Garry Ringrose in light of his head injury.

Monday was a rest day, Tuesday an organisational one, before training on Wednesday. Some of the squad, especially those based in Dublin, returned home that night, before they all came together again on Thursday.

On the Tuesday, Paul Coulson, an Irish billionaire who is the largest shareholder and chairman of Ardagh Group, was guest speaker at the squad’s base in Carton House.

“I interviewed him for about 45 minutes, there was a Q&A with the players and then he spoke a little about players’ careers post rugby, preparing for that and what they should be doing. That’s a bit of a passion of mine,” explains Kearney.

JD Bertrand, a player with Notre Dame who will face Navy in this year’s College Football Classic, visited the squad on Thursday and spoke with Ryan Baird, Tadhg Furlong and others. Bertrand’s father, Jim, captained Blackrock College to victory over Clongowes in the 1981 Leinster Schools Senior Cup final at the old Lansdowne Road.

Visits have been happening for many years but, while it is a more relaxed environment now than was the case under Joe Schmidt, Kearney is at pains to highlight one other significant factor, the completion of the IRFU’s High Performance Centre (HPC) in the Ireland Sports Campus.

The players leave Carton House early in the morning, driving over to the HPC in their own cars, do their day’s work by 4.30/5pm and generally have the evenings to themselves back at base.

“They drive in their cars over to the HPC on their own, they get a bit of head space then. They get a bit of head space driving back again and I just think a lot of the criticism of Joe has been really unfair. Himself and David Nucifora deserve an enormous amount of credit for so much that we’ve achieved over the last number of years.”

Kearney also stresses the role Jason Cowman, Ciaran Ruddock and the S&C team play in helping make Ireland the fittest team in the championship; the medical team, the new rehab physio Einar Einarsson, the new dietitian Emma Gardner, the physios Willie Bennett and Dave Revins, press officer David O’Siochain and logistics manager Geraldine Armstrong.

“There’s a big engine in behind which actually does phenomenal work as well.”

Last week there was also the distraction of the Cheltenham Festival, and Bennett was the nominated Cheltenham tipster.

“I think I backed 12 horses and 11 of them are still running,” notes Kearney. “So, Willie’s tips didn’t turn out to be too good!”

At Friday’s Captain’s Run in the Aviva, the players wore coloured socks in honour of World Down Syndrome Day, and Jennifer Malone, who has Down’s Syndrome, sat in on the team photograph.

That being St Patrick’s Day, for the first time ever the players’ families – about 100 in total – attended training as well.

“The players stayed around afterwards, signed all the jerseys and it was just a lovely couple of hours for the families,” says Kearney.

Mack Hansen ended up rooming on his own due to his nominated roommate being ill.

“That was perfect, as I’m normally rooming with Finlay Bealham and his snoring. But he’s still a great roommate! I tried to sleep in late enough, as long as I could, to ensure the day doesn’t go on so long. We were pretty fortunate having 3pm games during the whole tournament, so 5pm felt like forever. I don’t know if that was the occasion or how late we were playing.”

Breakfast was served in the team room until 10am, after which their mornings were free. Hansen had a coffee and tried to chill out with some of his squad mates, but the mood music was palpably quieter.

“Everybody was definitely a bit nervous, but trying not to seem like it. Normally everybody would be having a fair bit of craic. We knew that this was a pretty big one. It definitely meant so much to everybody that the nerves got to us a little bit.

“I was incredibly nervous before this game,” admits Hansen. “I was very nervous before the French game. They hadn’t lost in God knows how long. We were kind of expected to win that game but we know that the French can turn up, as they do, and they can be a tough one.

“But I just knew how much this meant to everyone, and to me as well, to get that over the line. The nerves were an all-time high, I’d say.”

A mate of Hansen’s from Australia came to the game, as did his aunt, Lorraine, and uncle Gabe, who are originally from Castlemartyr but now live in Australia.

“It was a dream of theirs to see a game in the Aviva, and they couldn’t have picked a better one than that.”

Dan Sheehan’s parents Barry and Sinead, along with extended family were at last Saturday’s match.

Sinead and Barry were up earlier than normal. They took their dog Milo for a 10k walk and had breakfast in Clonskeagh.

“I wasn’t up for too much chat with other people,” recalls Sheehan. “Usually, I’d be full of chat. It was more butterflies and nerves. We fired off a couple of good luck texts, which is pretty standard, but for the first time ever no reply. I think they were all quite nervous. It certainly felt different.”

One of Barry Sheehan’s priorities was contacting his mother, and Dan’s only surviving grandparent, Mary, who is in a nursing home, to make sure she was all set up to watch the game.

“My sister had been in to her, so it was all good. She watches it on the TV and has [RTÉ commentator] Michael Corcoran on the radio, she says because ‘he says nice things about Dan’. And I think probably because the radio commentary is a more descriptive commentary.”

Back in the Shelbourne, lunch was at 1.30, before the squad went back to their rooms or had their strapping done, reassembling for a brief meeting at 3pm and then onto the bus for the short drive to the ground.

At 3.05pm the squad left the hotel. People formed a corridor in the foyer, as did hundreds of supporters outside, singing The Fields of Athenry.

“It’s almost like an occasion in itself going to these matches, especially one so big,” says Kearney.

“The walk out of the Shelbourne was nuts,” says Hansen. “It’s always amazing but you could tell that there was just an extra few hundred people there wishing us well. I try not to listen to music on the bus because I like hearing everyone beep their horns and yell after you on the way to the game. I think it’s pretty cool.

“But the standout was definitely coming out of the Shelbourne. The amount of people who were there just to wish us well was pretty cool.”

Farrell kept his main address to the players until they arrived in the dressing-room.

“I don’t know how many team-talks I have heard at this stage but it’s phenomenal really how he’s able to touch on the right notes,” says Kearney.

“They’re always different. There are no cliches. There’s never the same thing repeated. He just seems to be able to capture the moment, capture the mood, make the players feel good. It’s a unique skill that he has, how he makes people feel.”

Hansen concurs.

“He’s the type of guy that could get you to run through walls for him. He just always says the right thing. I don’t know if he practices it in front of the mirror to himself, or what, but he’s very good at pumping the lads up before a game.”

Woollen travelled from Bristol on St Patrick’s Day.

“The next day we had a lovely breakfast, travelled at about 11.30/12 down to just outside the stadium, had a couple of points of Guinness in a local pub,” says Woollen.

On arrival at the stadium, they were escorted to the president’s suite for a three-course lunch. Their seats weren’t too shabby either, six together in row A in the President’s Box.

“The hospitality was fantastic. I was quite taken aback by it all really. It brought tears to my eyes.”

As the two teams ran onto the pitch together, and the anthems were played, a swirl of thoughts went through Woollen’s mind, not least conversations with her dad and trying to imagine them running onto the pitch 50 years previously. It made the hairs stand up on the back of her neck.

“Dad loved his farming and he loved his rugby, and he wanted to play for his country. He was very proud to play for his country. He told me that he’d had an anonymous phone call telling him not to go. He put it down as a hoax call but I learned later that he didn’t tell my mother about that phone call ‘til about two years afterwards because she would have worried.”

But the way Pullin recounted that match in 1973 to his daughter, there was also a certain gallows humour to that day.

“He was the first one running out on the pitch so if anyone was gonna take anyone out it was going to be him!

“And when they were lined up on the pitch for the anthems they stepped from one foot to the other because they didn’t want any snipers to have a good shot. And he was very concerned about Alan Morley who was out on the wing, because he was closest to the crowd.

“But he smiled and laughed about it. He went there to play rugby, and he always spoke very fondly of the Irish. He loved visiting Dublin and he had a very high regard for them.”

The Sheehan clan were invited to lunch by friends near the stadium.

“But we only lasted 45 minutes there as we wanted to get to the stadium in good time. I always avoid having a drink before a game. I can’t watch it if I’ve had a couple of pints,” says Barry Sheehan, who was in the stadium by 3.45pm, again a little earlier than normal.

The IRFU seat all the parents close together, directly above the players’ tunnel, and according to their sons’ playing numbers.

“I had Margaret and James Furlong on my left, and we had Ernie Porter and Andrew’s sister on our right. A wider front-row. Johnny Sexton’s kids were in front of us,” says Sheehan.

He went closer to the pitch for the warm-up, caught his son’s eye and exchanged the normal thumbs up. That makes him feel connected.

“It was really noticeable that people were in their seats earlier,” says Sheehan. “I thought God Save The King was a bit muted, maybe because they hadn’t travelled in such numbers, but then Amhrán na bhFiann and Ireland’s Call were belted out.

“And I saw Dan was really giving it some, more than he normally does, and with his eyes closed, which I hadn’t seen before. As we all were.”

“The roar straight after the anthems was the loudest roar I’ve ever heard in the stadium,” says Kearney, who was pitchside, miked up to the coaching box and overseeing the replacements.

“It was an incredible atmosphere, it really was. Were there nerves? There probably were, because it was an enormous occasion, wasn’t it? But we never tried to stop playing. We did make errors, but we kept playing the game that we had set out to play.”

As the errors continued, England moved into a 6-0 lead.

“The messages would have been, ‘keep playing, keep playing’, and that’s what we did,” says Kearney.

“I think we can’t take it away from England, they really showed up,” Hansen stresses. “They defended very well and put us under a lot of pressure. They didn’t let us play, but in saying that, in the first half, we didn’t help ourselves at all. We were our own worst enemies too. The nerves took over and maybe we got a bit lazy, and lacked the shape that we normally do [have].”

The desire to keep playing was typified by Hansen’s daring counterattack when he was the last man. Feinting to kick, he swerved around the outstretched arms of Owen Farrell and broke Maro Itoje’s tackle.

“I did one kick before that which was a stinker. So I said to myself: ‘I’m definitely not kicking again’. I actually said to Lowey: ‘Make sure you can get back so I can give the ball to you’. He’s obviously got a monster boot. Not that I don’t like kicking but just the way the wind was coming in and I was hitting it like I had two left feet.”

Their son’s shoulder injury against Scotland six days previously was an additional source of concern for the Sheehans. But their fears were eased in the 33rd minute. From their seats they had a bird’s-eye view of the lineout on the English 22, attacking the Havelock Square end.

“When he was in school [Clongowes] they used to have a move that he’d take off a lineout and Sinead said it to me: ‘This is like when he was in school’. It was a very nice throw, and you could see him lingering a little and I thought there might be something on here, and then it happened in a flash.”

People jumped to their feet in front of them as their son exploded toward the English line.

“I saw [Manu] Tuilagi coming across to give him a good smack and I couldn’t really see if he was over the line at that point. But looking at the replays, the tackle only helped him over the line. A great moment.”

Sheehan started playing mini rugby at the age of five in Bective Rangers. At 11, his father’s job took the family to Bucharest in 2009 for three years. Sheehan and his siblings went to the American International School. While maintaining his rugby skills in the back garden with his brother Bobby, football and swimming were his sports. His swimming coach and one of his teachers was Andrea Ferris, a Kiwi now back living in New Zealand.

“After the try, Sinead nudged me to say Andrea had just texted,” recalls Sheehan. “Dan actually saw her in the stands during the warm-up for the First Test in Auckland and waved to her.”

As for Woollen, she groans slightly when reflecting on the actual match.

“I honestly think England were doing a lot better than the week before. They picked their game up but as soon as the red card happened it was always going to be hard. Ireland are a world-class team, aren’t they?”

You put it to her that England were never going to win anyway.

“But at least we turned up,” she says, quick as a flash.

“Obviously the Freddie Steward thing [red card] happening was a plus in our direction,” says Hansen. “I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t relieved, but it’s a tough one. I met Freddie after the game and he’s a lovely lad. It was unintentional, but it’s how things are going at the moment.”

Leading 10-6 at half-time, the players were given a few moments to take on board some fluids, before Farrell addressed the group.

“Half-time was calm as always. It doesn’t change,” says Kearney. “There isn’t a lot of emotion involved. It’s actually very much about the detail, about what we want to do.”

“We were just doing everything we said we weren’t going to do,” recalls Hansen.

“I’ve forgotten Andy’s exact words but the way he kind of put it was that it was up to us what happens from here on out. If we want to win this game we can – if we don’t we won’t. He put the emphasis back on us to put out a better performance in the second half and that’s we did.”

A pivotal moment came on the hour when Sexton crosskicked to find grass in England’s lefthand corner. Hansen chased to tackle Anthony Watson, and with support from Jimmy O’Brien and Robbie Henshaw, dragged him over the line to force an Irish five-metre scrum.

Two phases after the scrum, Henshaw scored off Bundee Aki’s short pass.

“We had talked about it [a crosskick] all game and knowing they were down to 14 they were probably going to have a set-up with one in the back,” says Hansen.

“I knew that there was space and playing with Johnny you’ve always got to be ready, because if you miss those opportunities he’s going to absolutely rip your head off, which has happened to me a couple of times in training.

“You’re always on edge and waiting for him to do something like that. It’s a good thing that I’ve learned off him, to be ready for anything even if you’re nowhere near the play. If it’s on then like a drop of a hat he’ll get it to you.”

Within six minutes, Sheehan was stepping Jack van Poortvliet off a lineout before scoring from Jack Conan’s offload.

“He’s unreal,” says Hansen of Sheehan. “He’s got to be the best hooker in the world at the moment, I’d say. He’s got everything, there’s no flaws in his game. We’re very spoiled for choice in a lot of positions and that’s definitely one of them.”

As their son scored for a second time, Barry Sheehan noticed Dan Cole trying to tackle him, Hansen and James Ryan jumping on top of him, and his son celebrating.

“But then when he tried to get up his left arm was beside his body. They substituted him straight away.

“It’s very surreal. You don’t feel the crowd are there. I don’t really watch the game. I have to go home to watch the game because I spend my time just watching Dan. I’m watching him and if the ball moves past him I’m lingering on him.”

He had a pint under his seat, and now he could take his first gulp.

Within five minutes, after attempting to stop a 13-man English maul, true to type, Sexton has to bid farewell prematurely on his Six Nations finale.

“He was very sore by the way,” says Kearney. “It wasn’t a slow march to milk the crowd or anything like that. It was nice to have that ovation but I think he’d love to have stayed on to the very end.”

Rob Herring’s try clinched the win and Cian Healy also came on for what could yet be a less celebrated Six Nations farewell as the Irish bench was emptied.

“It’s lovely that we had that 13-point cushion at the end, that we were able to do that,” says Kearney.

The celebrations had started both off and on the pitch too before the final whistle.

“There was a minute to go and if you can find the footage it’s quite funny actually,” recalls Hansen. “I think we were up by 13, so we’d won the game regardless if they score. And then me and Jimmy O’Brien started hugging, telling each other we love each other. Then we look over and Bundee and Robbie were hugging each other.”

Hansen chuckles at the memory.

“It was just ecstatic. It’s hard to put into words – just one of the best moments of my life to be honest. That’s probably the best way to put it.

“Everyone hanging around to cheer and appreciate lifting the trophy with us was absolutely amazing,” says Hansen.

“It was something like I’d never experienced before or been a part of. Having 50,000 Irish people screaming at the top of their lungs was unreal.”

Kearney gave the signal for the parents and families to be allowed onto the pitch, leading to some once-in-a-lifetime photos with parents, wives, girlfriends, siblings and children for the once-in-a-lifetime day that was in it.

“Then the way the crowd stayed back and lived the experience was just really fantastic,” says Kearney.

When the players returned to the dressing-room, Kearney had to cajole 10 of them to make a few commercial appearances.

“That’s always difficult. I said: ‘Just go now in your gear, and you’ll be back in 10 or 15 minutes’ and in fairness they were brilliant.”

Woollen and her family appreciated that they had witnessed an historical day for Irish rugby.

“And with it being Johnny Sexton’s last Six Nations game, it was a momentous occasion for the Irish and I am really grateful for having been there. I think Dad help lay the foundations for great days like this to happen.”

The players’ parents went to a room reserved for them in the Aviva.

“That’s where we always meet after games, and we had a very nice couple of pints there,” said Sheehan. “People were so generous with their comments and their genuine happiness was palpable.”

The entire squad, now in dress suits, and families met up again at a reception, while the players’ girlfriends and wives were whisked away in a bus to the Shelbourne to change for the post-match banquet.

“There’s a lovely photograph of the entire squad and the management in their black ties, and the girls who were part of the team in their ball dresses, and they were all singing their heads off,” says Sheehan.

While the squad departed for the post-match dinner, the parents and families stayed put in the Aviva.

“We stayed until we were thrown out. The times are getting a bit sketchy,” says Sheehan with a laugh. They went to Lansdowne, and from there on into Searsons, and then town.

“We didn’t get home until about four,” says Sheehan senior, and it didn’t stop the next day, or the day after.

The post-match banquet was in the RDS Hall 4, where Andrew Trimble conducted a Q&A with Sexton and Owen Farrell, and then a few more players. The Irish party then reconvened in the Shelbourne at 12.30am.

The Woollens made a weekend of it, and on Sunday visited the Guinness Factory, having a couple of pints in the Gravity Bar before adjourning to Temple Bar.

“We had a fantastic weekend. As my uncle said, it was probably the best rugby experience in his life and if he died tomorrow, he’d die a very happy man with great memories. He really, really enjoyed it.

“Walking into the hospitality section, watching the game, just being there; just being in that stadium on that day, on that momentous occasion for both English and Irish rugby, it was just brilliant.”

At 1.30pm, Barry Sheehan was visiting his mum when his son called.

“Typical Dan, he rang me to say: ‘Are you coming to this lunch?’ I said: ‘What lunch?’ He said: ‘Oh yeah, there’s a lunch in the Shelbourne at 3.’ So, we went in, to the Shelbourne.”

Maintaining the familial theme of the weekend, there were an estimated 230 people at the IRFU’s ‘private’ party for players, management, backroom staff and their parents, brothers, sisters and partners. The players arrived at around 3.45pm. Kearney welcomed everybody. No speeches, very inclusive.

Kearney also brought his three kids and his 92-year-old mum Freda.

“That was a special moment for her because she loves the rugby and she’d be glued to the matches but she’d never really met the players. They were all very respectful and she got plenty of hugs from different people. So that was very special.”

Amid the mingling, the Under-20s game on the big screen prompted some roaring and shouting.

“There’s a really nice group of committed parents and families,” says Sheehan. “You get to know them, whether it’s the McCloskeys or the O’Tooles or the Caseys, or the O’Mahonys, the Prendergasts, the Furlongs, the Porters, they’re all there, or Mack Hansen’s girlfriend and her family. It’s a loose cohort who, I think, all understand the nervousness of it.”

Rugby is a huge part of the Sheehan’s lives, and they have some lovely photographs of them together on the day.

“I was saying to Sinead, no matter what they do now, when they’re age 88, this will be mentioned,” says Sheehan. “A phenomenal time, and quite humbling actually to have somebody involved in it. When you get that close to it sometimes it almost feels a little surreal. You don’t get those sort of days playing for the 3rd Bs!”

“We had a couple of good days celebrating,” says Hansen with a chuckle. “One day is a bit blurry but afterwards everybody was just enjoying each other’s company. We were all just sitting around and saying: ‘How good is this?’ Everything that we’d done.

“Wherever we’d go, people were saying how much they enjoyed it as well. The three days of celebrating were great, and to spend them with such a good group of fellas was unreal. There’s been a lot of chat about the group that we have and yeah, it’s a very special group. I couldn’t want to do it with anybody else.”

“The aftermath is almost a feeling of relief, relief mixed with joy,” says Kearney. “The players set out to win this and Andy wasn’t afraid to mention winning. From the time we met in Portugal this was about winning the tournament. We’ve worn the mantle of being number one in the world, I think, with pride and respect, and have delivered on the pitch as well.”

And as Kearney also puts it: “You can only ever be the first once, as they say.”

History makers.