This moment in time will go down in history as one of the very best ever for Irish sport. It began with the Irish rugby team claiming the Six Nations Championship with a week to spare. It continued with almost unparalleled success at Cheltenham. And it ended in real style with a St Patrick’s Day victory over England at Twickenham to give Ireland only their third Grand Slam in the history of the tournament. No wonder the Guinness was flowing!
Ireland’s Six Nations campaign did not get off to a flying start in Paris, and it took the very last kick of the match (a 45m drop-goal by Sexton) to seal a tight victory over France by just two points. Ireland may have been without a try on that day, and not looking much like Grand Slam contenders, but they soon picked up the pace.
No less than eight tries, all converted, against Italy, and five more against Wales, saw their bonus points start to stack up. So, when they put four more past Scotland for a third bonus point, and England were defeated in France, it meant that the Championship was theirs. It also set up a mighty showdown with England at Twickenham for the biggest prize of them all: a Six Nations Grand Slam.
Before that, however, there was the small matter of the Cheltenham Festival—twenty-eight races over four days, on what was some of the heaviest ground in recent memory.
Ireland has a strong history at Cheltenham, and there is always a great rivalry between British and Irish trainers. But this year the contest was rather one-sided, as Ireland made headlines in the sports news around the world. Irish trainers ran away with no less than 17 of the 28 races—the second-best total in the history of the Festival. In fact, the only real rivalry was between the two top Irish trainers, with Gordon Elliot’s eight winners just beating his long-term rival, Willlie Mullins, who had seven.
After sharing the spoils with three wins from seven races on the opening day, Ireland fell just one short of a ‘green sweep’ on days two and three, with victories in six out of the seven races. This included Michael O’Leary, the Ryanair boss, finally getting his hands on the trophy his company sponsors, when Balko Des Flos triumphed by some distance in the Ryanair chase.
Not only were 17 of the Cheltenham festival winners trained in Ireland this year, but 14 of them were also bred in the country, demonstrating the strength of Irish racing and breeding. All in all, it was a magnificent Festival for the Irish that could only have been bested by picking up the big prize of the Cheltenham Gold Cup itself.
An exciting week’s racing success left Irish spirits high as we headed into the weekend and the huge game in snowy South London. Many pundits predicted that England would win. Having been stung by two successive defeats, the received wisdom was that they would be out to prove a point, hoping to wreak revenge for Ireland spoiling their own Grand Slam party last season. With the tournament already gone, the home side had nothing to lose, while Ireland had every right to be nervous.
In the end, however, Ireland never looked like losing the game, as inventive attack and solid stonewall defence saw them run out comfortable winners. If anything, the 15-24 score line flattered another poor England performance. With three extra bonus points for the Grand Slam, Ireland ended the tournament 11 points clear of second-place Wales and leapfrogged England to be second in the world rankings to New Zealand (whom they famously beat just 18 months ago).
It’s been an unforgettable week for Irish sport, but this could be just the start of it. With none of the big guns in their Rugby World Cup Pool A, Ireland have an unprecedented chance of World Cup Glory in Japan in 18 months’ time. And victory there would be the icing on the cake for Irish sport.