Johnny Sexton had hoped that this moment would arrive earlier in his career. As he attempted to compute what he and Ireland had achieved at an unseasonably Baltic Twickenham he returned to The Shelbourne eight years ago.
Sexton revealed last week that he had taken his first shot at a Triple Crown for granted as he prepared at the elegant Dublin hotel back in 2010. But now one had finally arrived and brought a longed-for Grand Slam along with it, the fly-half’s initial reaction was one of relief rather than jubilation.
“It has been a weird week, horrible in many ways,” Sexton said. “People were talking about us trying to enjoy it but I found it very tough to enjoy the build-up, it was nerve racking at times.
“I’m just glad to get out the other side of it.”
It was not only Sexton for whom time was running out on their quest for a Six Nations clean sweep. Rory Best and Rob Kearney had been in the infancy of their Test careers when Ireland last won the Grand Slam, in 2009, but they wanted to experience that feeling again.
Keith Earls — a veteran wing reborn over the past six weeks — also had history high on his to-do list. That quartet of senior players sat down ahead of the championship and discussed the possibility of completing a Grand Slam for the first time.
“It was blatantly obvious to the older guys — Keith Earls, myself, Rob, Rory — that we wanted to win a Grand Slam,” Sexton added. “We have always been very process driven so we spoke about it at the start and then parked it. And went game by game. Literally.
“Even this week we didn’t speak about a Grand Slam we just spoke about putting in our best performance. We knew we had to get a result against that side [England].”
One or two of their most valued teammates over the last nine years did not quite make it to Twickenham on Saturday. Jamie Heaslip was forced into retirement due to persistent injury last month, Luke Fitzgerald hung up his boots the summer of 2016.
Those players were in Sexton’s thoughts as he took on England in south-west London. “I got a lot fo texts from those guys before the game. Very special texts from different people I played with over the years,” he said.
“You think about those guys a lot.”
Standing behind this success, out of shot, is Joe Schmidt. You will not see the Kiwi head coach in many — if any — celebratory photos, he made sure he let the players take the adulation of the travelling hordes in green, this was their moment.
Make no mistake, though, it was Schmidt who masterminded this triumph — not only the third Grand Slam in Irish rugby history but also the third Six Nations title of their coach’s five-year reign. The post with Ireland earned after a three-year spell as Leinster boss that yielded four major trophies.
The meticulous approach he brings to preparation highlighted at Twickenham by CJ Stander’s try, which came via a move first attempted against the same opposition three years ago.
“He keeps you on your toes,” Sexton said of his coach. “How do I put this nicely? At times during the week you are driven demented with him but you know he is doing it for a reason — putting pressure on you in training, at meetings to make sure on Saturday every box is ticked, to make sure all the prep is done.
“We couldn’t have done it without Jordan Larmour, Garry Ringrose, Joey Carbery, these young guys have been exceptional.”
“He is an incredible coach, his record with Irish teams speaks for itself. He was three years with Leinster ad got to six finals. Five years with Ireland and we have won three championships, a Grand Slam, the World Cup obviously didn’t go to plan but there are lots of reasons why that didn’t go to plan.
“Hopefully we can have a good crack at the next one.”
If Ireland are finally going to fulfil their potential at the World Cup in Japan next year then the youngsters who have been bloodied this season will have an integral role to play.
Ireland were already light in the back row without Heaslip and Sean O’Brien when they lost Josh van der Flier in week one. Dan Leavy, 23, stepped in and didn’t look back.
When Robbie Henshaw and then Chris Farrell, themselves only 24 and 25, pulled up in consecutive weeks, Garry Ringrose timed his return from injury to perfection.
Add in record-breaking wing Jacob Stockdale, 21, fly-half Joey Carbery, 22, and fullback Jordan Larmour, 20, and Ireland are clearly in rude health. “That is what makes this campaign so special, that so many new guys came in, and I think we should give so much credit to the coaching staff that you lose the calibre of back rowers,” Sexton added.
“There were four guys who were injured and who were a huge part of this team over the last four years, and then to lose Robbie [Henshaw] for most of the campaign, among others, and guys just kept coming in.
“Garry came and even though he has not played a lot of rugby his two performances were incredible. It just seemed to fit this year.”
He added: “We couldn’t have done it without Jordan Larmour, Garry, Joey, these young guys have been exceptional.
“They are exceptional rugby players and people. Hopefully they can keep their feet on the ground and have success going forward.”