Thinking about the upcoming final two weekends of the 2023 Six Nations Championship took me down the rabbit hole of Ireland’s 2009 Grand Slam triumph, initially from a personal perspective, but also in drawing a thin comparison with points of symmetry to the present-day campaign.
My potential involvement back then hung by the thread of a conversation that I initiated with Declan Kidney, Ireland’s head coach at that time. I was returning to the match environment following a badly broken arm that required three surgeries and a tackle on Stephen Ferris in a mid-January game against Ulster to allay a nagging fear.
In that one moment I was able to leave behind the emotional baggage, the uncertainty about the previous 12 months and what the future might hold knowing that whatever issues I had they weren’t physical. Professional sport is notoriously unsentimental, so in Leinster I wasn’t welcomed back with a red carpet and fanfare.
Michael Cheika elected to play Isa Nacewa at 10 and Felipe Contepomi at 12 in our two European matches in January. I managed 40 minutes across three games in three different positions, none of which were at inside centre.
As a body of work, it wasn’t ideal coming off a 12-month lay-off, nor would it have been particularly persuasive for anyone who had doubts about whether I would still possess the ability to play international rugby.
I came up with a plan, which required getting permission from Kidney to play for Lansdowne in the All-Ireland League as it was the only competitive outlet that would provide me with the chance to play the 80 minutes that I desperately needed. He agreed but with several terms and conditions.
He wanted me to focus on one aspect of my game, telling me he knew I could run so it wasn’t about how many players I beat but in creating opportunities for other players. I took my remit and ran with it so to speak, embracing the chance with gusto in the belief that I had a free roll of the dice. I was back with my club, playing with a bunch of great fellas and we clicked on the pitch.
It took Rob Kearney’s speech to get us to have a proper look in the mirror, to break down unintentional but existing barriers and to realign everything
When you strip all the money, stress and expectation away from professional rugby, it is what it boils down to, do you love what you do? I could emphatically say yes, as the previous 12 months had forced me to make peace with the fact that I had a 50/50 chance of never playing again.
So, for the second time in my career I made the decision that if I got another chance, I would take it with both hands and not look back. I didn’t go straight back into the Ireland team but built some momentum from the bench and eventually earned a start against Scotland at Murrayfield in round four.
In 2009, our journey to the Grand Slam grew from modest ambition. There was precious little momentum from the previous November, a comprehensive loss to New Zealand and an unwatchable arm wrestle with Argentina.
It took Rob Kearney’s speech to get us to have a proper look in the mirror, to break down unintentional but existing barriers and to realign everything, to focus on the honour and privilege of representing our country above any other consideration.
There wasn’t an in-house sports psychologist to gauge the mood of the camp or a mechanic to get under the hood and find out why the car had stalled. We relied on Kidney’s intuition about not only the path to take, but how to get there.
After all it was largely the same group that had nosedived at the 2007 World Cup in France. It again underlines my belief that coaching is less about tactics and more about knowing how to extract the best from people. The best coaches challenge, facilitate, enable and provide the players with the tools to play and the freedom to use them.
That’s the beauty of sport, the fact that anything is possible
Players respond to positive stimuli and often those special moments on a pitch come from a supportive and nurturing environment. There was not an overt goal of winning the Grand Slam, more an acknowledgment that we could win the championship. Most outside onlookers would have required plenty of convincing before the start of the campaign.
Even for us as a group there were caveats. On a personal level, the first three matches were about trying to get up to speed as quickly as possible, find the muscle and rugby memory out on the pitch. We gradually accepted there was something historic on the horizon, the outside noise had gathered to such a ferocious din that it was impossible to ignore.
That realisation unfurled slowly and certainly wasn’t there from the first training session in advance of the tournament. Looking back now with the benefit of three decades as a player, the fact that we were unencumbered by expectation initially suited the group.
Our goals were bite size and extended no further than the next match until we had to address the elephant in the room after we had banked home wins against France and England and triumphed in Rome. The foundations of performance were strong at that stage and the challenge linear in focus.
Part of being the best and what sets you apart from the rest, is that you can show up when others don’t
There is a contrast with Andy Farrell’s squad. We built gradually, they had a much loftier starting point based on all they have achieved from the Test series win in New Zealand last summer, through to the November matches.
When we were planning for Scotland, the focus was predominantly internal. There was an unpredictability about Scotland that forced this type of approach. No matter what it looked like from the outside, the Scots often had the capacity to turn logic or the form book on its head with little warning.
If both teams play to their maximum capacity on Sunday, Ireland should win on paper, but matches are played on grass. That’s the beauty of sport, the fact that anything is possible. Pressure has bent expectation out of shape, rendered teams unrecognisable as the hottest of favourites have wilted under the spotlight.
Dan Parks kicked us off the pitch in 2010, left us feeling numb and shell-shocked in our last game at Croke Park. Look at the weekend just gone, Munster and Connacht nearly came a cropper in matches they should have won in a canter.
Part of being the best and what sets you apart from the rest, is that you can show up when others don’t. Crucially in 2009 at Murrayfield, we found a way to win, when a highly motivated Jamie Heaslip entered the fray from the bench to score a match-winning try.
I don’t believe that the word banana skin will be mentioned in the build-up to this game, because Ireland will correctly appreciate that Scotland have embraced a style of rugby that not only suits their talents but one which takes into consideration the modern laws.
The Scottish and Irish teams thrive with the new extended ball in play time, numbers that hit the high 30s to a tournament-leading 46 minutes in Ireland’s victory over France in Dublin. Games have less structure, particularly in defence and kicking and this has been manna from heaven for Finn Russell.
The question that’s rattling around my head is how long Scotland can stay in step with Ireland?
He is benefiting greatly from the solid platform provided by his tight five as well as the calm presence Sione Tuipulotu brings outside him. Scotland are arguably a more unpredictable attacking threat than Ireland, with excellent broken-field runners and a sharp counter-attacking game that is lethal against teams who have kicked or chased poorly.
There is no doubt that this is a superb Scottish team, who have been a joy to watch in the tournament. Rather than the question being about Ireland, and can they travel to win, I feel it is more about Scotland and can they stay with the visitors when Farrell’s side are hitting their attacking peak in the match?
The mental approach this team has developed is feeding into performances, and while Italy was not perfect, they had to find a way to win. Scotland’s recent performances deserve Ireland’s attention if nothing else, and I would expect them to prepare accordingly.
It will be interesting to see who starts this week, with the returning Johnny Sexton and Jamison Gibson-Park likely to get the nod at halfback. Where will Robbie Henshaw feature and has Ryan Baird done enough? The question that’s rattling around my head is how long Scotland can stay in step with Ireland?
The game management by Ireland has been top notch across three matches so far, and the kicking strategies they have applied have been a prerequisite to the pressure they have applied to opponents. If they can repeat that, it will be decisive. When the pressure comes on, I back Ireland to deliver.